ABC Cayuga

Lola and baby Brynn Brannigan at the ABC Cayuga Play Space in Auburn.

Toddlers and young children are famous for having tantrums when things don’t go their way, but have you noticed they can also channel that passion to other emotions, like joy? Or even empathy? Being empathetic is the ability to imagine how someone else is feeling and respond with care. Empathy is a complex skill, and a work in progress throughout childhood and adolescence. However, even very young children are keenly aware of other’s emotions, and often respond with care and concern.

I recently witnessed this in the checkout line at a grocery store. A toddler in front of me was holding his “very loved” blanket and watching the woman in front of him as she was checking out. She looked at her groceries and started to cry softly as she said, “I bought too much. My husband just moved to a nursing home and I keep forgetting not to shop for two.” All of the adults were awkwardly silent, not sure how to help, but the toddler didn’t hesitate. He reached out and offered her his blanket and a big smile. She smiled back instantly, gave the blanket a little squeeze and looked in the child’s eyes as she thanked him sincerely. The cashier then calmly helped her decide which items to put back, and everyone in line smiled and waited patiently. Empathy is powerful stuff! We all felt uplifted and empowered from just witnessing this sweet, simple act. Choosing kindness often has intrinsic rewards of feeling positive and powerful, and children of all ages love to experience this.

Practice random acts of kindness

The holiday season is a wonderful time for adults to give young children many opportunities to witness and experience kindness. Food drives and toy collections are often too abstract for young children to make sense of and connect to. Little children learn best when they witness and experience kindness in the moment, and in the context of their own lives.

Instead, try to focus on simple, everyday actions, to keep you and your little one focused on kindness this holiday season. Perform some small random acts of kindness and talk about them as you are doing them.

• “Let’s hold this heavy door for the next person coming through. That would be helpful and kind.”

• “Why don’t we let the person in line go ahead of us? He only has a few things and we have a whole big cart full of food!”

• “Let’s call Aunt Mary today just to tell her we love her and brighten her day!”

• “You’ve played really hard and seem tired. I would love to help you pick up your toys then we can make a yummy lunch. It makes me feel good to be kind to people I love.”

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Try to make a commitment to do something little like this every day. It will become contagious and your little ones will amaze you as they begin to imitate and initiate these kind deeds.

Recognize and affirm emotions

One of the kindest things we can do for young children is allow them to experience their emotions — even the hard ones. Sometimes when a child is sad, angry or disappointed, we rush to try and fix it right away, or tell the child to stop feeling the emotion ("stop crying," "you don’t need to get mad") These feelings are part of life and labeling, and validating difficult feelings actually helps children learn to handle them.

It’s important to remember that acknowledging a child’s emotion is not the same as giving in to a demand. Try using language like: “I can see that you’re really sad because you want to stay and play longer. I’m sorry. We do need to go home. I’ll pick you up and give you a big hug as we walk out.”

If you are picking up a screaming child, you can practice empathy by calmly saying, “I know you’re feeling really angry. You don’t want to leave, but it’s time”. You can even say, “It’s OK to cry.” Often, adults feel it’s important to stop children from crying, but crying is their most honest and efficient way of letting us know how they are feeling. When children are allowed to cry or be sad for a bit, it can help them move on. This works for adults, too!

As you make your way through this busy holiday season, remember to slow down and play! When the routine gets too hectic, play is the best way for children to recharge, and playing with a loved adult is the best gift you can give a child. The Play Space will be open Dec. 26 and Dec. 27 to welcome the holiday-weary children and parents who need a good dose of play!

In the spirit of the holidays, I will leave you with a quote displayed at the Play Space:

"Be kind whenever possible ...  it’s always possible."

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Elizabeth Stilwell is the director of operations at ABC Cayuga's Play Space. For more information, visit abccayuga.org or playspaceabc.com, or visit the Play Space at 63 Genesee St., Auburn.