How to Teach a Toddler Empathy Through Reading

Literacy is a powerful tool, especially when we live in a world that can be intimidating and new to toddlers. Using books to teach toddlers lessons from an early age is one of our most powerful tools as parents. As a certified Literacy Specialist, I urge you to be thoughtful in the books you choose for your toddlers at such a young and impressionable age! There are some great titles out there, and many teachable moments for you and your little ones.

In our house, my 20 month old son has been fascinated with feelings lately, as well as the statement “Oh no!” He understands conflict and resolution more clearly in the shows he watches, in real life, and in the books he reads. He loves to point out when he sees a character crying and loves to shout hurray when a problem is solved. Having a baby sister has also begun to expose him to empathy and understand that other people have feelings too. I’ve realized that this is the perfect time to start teaching him about empathy and using his emotions.

Children are very egocentric by nature. They don’t see things from other people’s perspective, and life is all about them. This is why you often see parallel play and less playing together before preschool age, on average. There’s some great information on this subject here. For this reason, it’s difficult for toddlers to be empathetic and use their emotions appropriately. Still, it’s never too early to set that foundation and to start talking to your toddler about feelings and other people. Books can be a great way to do that! Here’s how to use books to teach empathy.

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  1. Talk About Feelings

When reading your child’s favorite book, talk about how the characters are feeling, or how they might feel. Teach your toddler to look at their facial expression or body language, and show them an example using your own body. Baby Faces by Kate Merritt is a great book to do this with, from a very young age.

2. Use Their Interests 

This is a tool that we use as teachers throughout all grade levels. Find out what your child likes at the time and what kinds of books interest them, and use those to keep them interested. Even as toddlers, they will undoubtedly bring you the same books over and over because they like them! My son is really into animals right now, and loves when a mommy and baby animal are involved. For some reason a popular plot is that the baby always loses their mommy! So sad! Anyway, he loves stories about animals. One of my favorite books to teach empathy and feelings is All Better, by Henning Lohein. It comes with actual bandaids to stick onto the animals’ boo boos. There’s no better opportunity to teach empathy than to let your toddler take care of someone else!

3. Roleplay

Toddlers love to see real life situations play out in books as well. How relatable! The David books are great for this. While reading, pretend that you are a character or ask your toddler to be that character. Play out the situation and make connections for your child by carrying over the situation to real life. For example, I always mention books while we are playing or out and about. If my son spills his milk, I might remind him of a scene when the character David made a mess. I might ask him how he feels or tell him how I feel as well.

4. Be Sensitive to Your Toddlers’ Feelings

This is something you can do with or without books, but books give you many opportunities to help your child talk through their feelings. How can you expect to teach empathy if you aren’t empathetic yourself? Toddlers are still developing social skills, so helping them through tough times is very important to understanding empathy. We are beginning to mention sharing in our house right now, as my 7 month old wants to play with her brothers’ toys and vice versa. I often have to explain to my toddler how to share with his sister and calm him down when he realizes he can’t always get what he wants. Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard is a great book to show toddlers that everyone feels grumpy sometimes and that’s ok!

5. Emphasize Problem and Solution

In books where there is a conflict and a character feels a certain way, you can emphasize how that character feels before and after their problem is solved, on a very simple level of course. One of our favorite books is Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle. It’s a book about friendship, helping others, and working together. It also has farm animals, which is a plus! It teaches a great lesson, and can be read over and over again.

Here is a list of great books you can use to teach your toddler empathy and how to handle their feelings:

  • I Am Happy: A Touch and Feel Book of Feelings
  • My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss
  • How Are You Peeling by Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers
  • Feelings by Aliki
  • The Feelings Book by Todd Parr
  • Baby Happy Baby Sad by Leslie Patricelli
  • Baby Faces by DK Publishing
  • When I Am/Cuando Estoy by Gladys Rosa-Mendoza
  • My Many Colored Days by Dr. Suess
  • The Feelings Book by Todd Part
  • If You’re Happy and You Know It: My First Taggies Book by Ken Geist

    Empathy is the ability to image how someone else is feeling in a situation, and respond with care.

THIS IS A VERY COMPLEX SKILL TO DEVELOP!

Be patient with your toddler and realize that each day is a new opportunity to learn! Literacy can be so helpful in teaching life lessons in a fun and engaging way. Check out Babies to Bookworms for some awesome ideas and books to dive into with your toddler. I use this resource all the time.

Happy Reading!


8 thoughts on “How to Teach a Toddler Empathy Through Reading

  1. Karen. says:

    All so true!! Reading to your child is a wonderful opportunity to teach them about the world and provides bonding moments that are remembered for a lifetime!!0

  2. The Momproviser says:

    Great choice of books! The indestructibles are so key during that early toddler destructive phase. My little one loves to look at the faces, and when I make those faces to her, she mimics me.

  3. Alex says:

    Wow! Such a great way to be intentional with my kids! I had not heard of any of these books before but I think my toddler would LOVE the bandaid book. I need to be reading to her more often. Since my second was born we don’t have the same amount of one on one time that we used to. I need to be sure that I prioritize it for her. Thank you for these resources!

  4. justine says:

    this was a really good book list, I always make sure to teach my kids using literacy. it seems they listen to the characters in the books instead of me! hah!

  5. Maggie says:

    This all so true! Reading is so important for a variety of reasons! Thank you for sharing these titles, I am looking them up during nap time today! We are always on the hunt for more books!

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