It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Today’s lesson: Compassion

“Baby Rory has a red car.”

Tyler is circling, a vulture with his prey firmly in his sites. Rory has brought a car from home, a small red car. It might be Lightning McQueen, but I can’t be sure. It hasn’t slipped from the grasp of those pudgy fingers once this morning, not even during his short morning snooze. Tyler peers at what he can see of the car. He wants some Sharing around here, he wants it now, and he wants it to start with that small red car. In typical Tyler fashion, his first approach is oblique.

“Baby Rory has a red car.”

“Yes, he does.” I am playing dumb. If he wants something, he knows how to ask politely and directly. I’m not taking the bait, because I want him to do the social lifting here.

“He is not playing with his car.”

“No, he is just holding it.”

“He is not playing with his car.” This isn’t said in a tone of accusation; Tyler is not whining at all, he is merely informing me.

“You’re right. He is just holding it. I think it makes him feel safe.”

“He is not playing with it.”

You know, we could go on playing cat-and-mouse for quite a while. I’m not sure how long it would take for Tyler to realize he needs to be direct, but this morning it would only be cruel, because this morning…

“You know what, Tyler?”


“Baby Rory is very tired today.”

In fact, Baby Rory is just back from ten days in Italy. My clientele tends to be what they term “comfortable”. A significant percentage of my junior clientele are better-travelled than me before they are three. I try not to be bitter about this, and generally succeed. I don’t succeed so well at stifling the occasional wistful sigh… What Baby Rory is, the lucky little monkey, is jet-lagged. But for Tyler, I keep it simple:

“Baby Rory just woke up, he’s very tired. It’s too soon for him to share yet.”

“He can share later?” Tylers round blue eyes widen with hope.

“Well, sweetie, in a little while Baby Rory’s daddy is coming to take him to the doctor, and Rory will want to take his car with him, I’m sure. When he is at the doctor, he will be getting a needle.”

“A needle?”

“Yes. And so when he comes back again, he might be sore and grumpy. So you know what that means?”

“He will have a bo-bo on his arm.” Tyler squeezes a forearm with the opposing hand. He’s been there, he knows from needles and bo-bos.

“Yes. He might also be tired again, and maybe even feel a little sick. I think that we won’t ask him to share his car today.” I lean in toward Tyler’s face, which is sliding into disappointed protest. He’s teetering on the brink of an outraged protest, so I have to be quick, and I have to be smoooooth. But I am not just after avoiding a petulant outburst. I want Tyler to understand, I want to encourage him to think beyond his own wants, and to think of Rory’s needs and feelings. Impossible? Not at all. Tyler turned three this week. He’s capable of empathy. It’s just not his… er… default response…

I nod confidentially, and lower my voice, speak a little slower as I share a Big People insight, inviting Tyler to be a Big People with me. “We won’t ask him to share, because he is only little, and he isn’t feeling well, and you know what? I think that, just for today, sharing will be too hard for Baby Rory.”

“He will not share his red car?”

“Not today, lovie. I think it will just be too hard for him.”

“Because he is little? And he is getting a needle?”

“Yes. That is what I think.”

Tyler meets my eyes and nods along with me, two Big People compassionately considering the foibles of the Small. His face relaxes from incipient protest to knowing smile.

“I think so, too. He is too little to share today.” Ladies and gentlemen, we have empathy.

I give Tyler my warmest smile. “You are a very kind Big Boy, Tyler. You are being kind to Baby Rory.”

“And tomorrow he will be all better, and I can play with the red car!”

Empathy, compassion… and deferred gratification. The boy will go far.

October 13, 2010 - Posted by | individuality, Rory, Tyler | , , , ,


  1. Nicely handled! And good for Tyler. He must be learning these values at home as well.

    I’m quite sure he is. His parents are lovely people, and he has an older sibling (Emily) who shows lots of empathy. The two siblings get along very well, as well, also a tribute to diligent emotional parenting!

    Comment by mamadragon | October 13, 2010 | Reply

  2. Well done, Mary! (and Tyler!)

    It’s so satisfying when you’re successful! Because, though it didn’t happen this time, Tyler can be pretty intractable, so there are no guarantees. You can see when the alternatives are evenly balanced — will he have a screaming hissy fit, or will he focus on the other child? — and I love it when we can tip the balance in the direction of compassion, awareness.

    Comment by Jill in Atlanta | October 13, 2010 | Reply

  3. Gosh I hope this rubs off on me! We are working so hard with our little guy to show some empathy and compassion for his sister. It is hard but so wonderful when you can get it to happen. Bravo!

    Comment by Dani | October 13, 2010 | Reply

  4. Way to go Tyler! Empathy is hard (but valuable) to learn and hard to exercise!

    Comment by Jess | October 13, 2010 | Reply

  5. You rock. This is great modeling for us readers so thank you!

    Comment by Sarah | October 13, 2010 | Reply

  6. I love the way you handled this! I wish I was a good a parent as you are a caregiver…I guess I’ll hope that wisdom will keep accumulating with time.

    Comment by Emily | October 13, 2010 | Reply

  7. This reminds me, when I was in child development classes in college, I remember learning that empathy typically developed around age 4 (with the range being 3-6 yrs old). But now it seems that I keep hearing (on parenting boards and in my early childhood parenting class) that it’s later and later! First it was 6-7 years old and then just last week an educator told us it was 8-9 before empathy was fully developed. I understand that it’s an ongoing development and a skill that one is always adding to, but why the huge jump? Why shouldn’t we expect our 3-5 yr olds to be empathetic? What’s your take Mary?

    Comment by Jenn | October 13, 2010 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: