Ask The Doctor and The Dad

Ask D+D: Why can’t my kid take a hint?


Today’s question comes from a mother in desperate need of a wet wipe:

The other day the kids and I grabbed a quick lunch. I was trying to corral everyone over to a table while also balancing all of our food, drinks and a milkshake on a tray, when the milkshake naturally fell, bounced off a chair and spilled EVERYWHERE (including on other people), before finally landing upside-down on my sandal. At that moment, my three-year-old asked, “Mama, can you lift me up on my seat? And can you open my toy?” …Why does my preschooler constantly ask me to do things for her when it’s obvious that I’m already really busy? Does she have absolutely no empathy, or is it an age thing, or what?
– Megan

Does your child have absolutely no empathy? Is it an age thing? The answers to those questions are “Yes” and “Yes.” It’s totally normal for children not to demonstrate empathy in situations like this until they’re about five years old. That’s because it takes kids about the length of a car loan to develop the ability to see situations through another person’s perspective – which is exactly what’s needed to realize that from your point of view, there’s lots more pressing stuff going on than whatever small request she’s making.

Here are some other times your child’s lack of empathy might rear its selfish little head:

  • When you’re completely bogged down with bags, baby carriers, strollers and whatnot that you’re hopelessly struggling to lug to the car, yet your little one whines for you to also take the one tiny stuffed animal in her hands because she just “can’t carry it”
  • When you finally finish cooking a nutritious dinner that your child herself requested, plating it, cutting it into kid-friendly bite-sized pieces, and blowing onto it so that everyone at the table can see that it’s not too hot, only to have her say (just as you’re about to take your first well-deserved bite), “I don’t like this – can I have something else?”
  • Whenever you try to be left alone for five freaking minutes so you can take a shower

Little kids aren’t going to cooperate with you in any of these situations.

And to get them to start, you’re pretty much just going to have to suck it up and wait. (But not with milkshake all over your foot – you can go ahead and clean that up now.)

The good news is, we do have a couple of things you can try while you’re waiting.

Dealing with an unsympathetic child – Tip #1:

First, you can try to speed up your child’s process of learning to see the world from another person’s perspective (at least a little bit) by talking about other people’s feelings early and often. When you see a kid getting pushed on the playground, talk about how that must have made him feel. When you’re reading together, talk about the thoughts and motivations of the characters. And when your kiddo inevitably makes unreasonable requests of you, calmly explain your perspective of the situation.

Practice like this can be really helpful. So helpful, in fact, that some kids who get more experience talking about feelings actually develop insight into the minds of others at four years old – a full year earlier than many of their peers.

Dealing with an unsympathetic child – Tip #2:

The second thing you can do? Just try to see the bright side of all this. Instead of focusing on how irate your kids’ insensitivity can make you in the moment, try to think about all the hilarious stories they’re giving you to tell your mom friends.

(Clearly from your question, you’ve already started collecting them!)

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