“The face she made when I took this photo! I remember that you didn’t want to go to the zoo, and you made a monkey face--no, a giraffe, that’s it, you were a giraffe!”
“I loved the giraffes…”
“How wonderful that trip to the zoo was. I didn’t even want to go, either!”
Invite your children to the best movie they can imagine: looking at old family albums. (The leather bound ones, if you still have any in the house, are like time travel but in reverse!) See that the house where a distant great grandmother was born was a mansion in the style of Gone with the Wind. Meet the grandfather who raised geese on a farm that the kids have heard you talk about dozens of times. The questions, the dialogue, the sincere interest--it all comes naturally.
No one can resist looking at old family photos. Why? Because the mind operates in images. It registers and stores the emotions associated with images. One small detail in a scene can activate an entire area of the brain that helps us re-live--not just simply remember--the moment portrayed in the photograph, however old and eroded the memory is. Looking over old albums, your family can recall fond memories -- experienced in a unique and personal way by each family member--and share together an experience in the present.
Children are fascinated by discovering the physical similarities of relatives and siblings and cousins. Suddenly they imagine how Dad felt, as a kid, in this photo where his own mother is snuggling with him. Tell them to count how many happy people appear in the album or to list all the feelings that they can describe in the faces in the pictures. See if there are more expressions that are happy, worried, sad, mad, or impartial to help them understand range of a family's emotions. Animals count too!
All photos help bring out emotions, so don’t skip the sad ones, like the pictures of a pet that is no longer around, or the one from the day that a grandparent was buried, or the snapshot of a goodbye to a friend. Images like these help us both relive sad moments and take advantage of the family album sharing as an opportunity to be sincere and genuine. In general we tend to hide these emotions when we live them. This is the perfect time to name them outright. “I was so sad that day, and the sadness stuck around for weeks. I still feel sad seeing this photo.” Old photos help us remember things that weren’t visible. “You were afraid here, you didn’t want to get in the ocean,” you might say. And your son might think, “My mother noticed; I wasn’t alone like I thought I was.”
The bottom line is that empathy has to do with correctly recognizing and naming feelings and trusting that you will be understood, because you have been understood many other times in the past. Studies show that mirror neurons--the neurological foundation of empathy--are motor neurons that react imitatively, activating the zones of the brain that have to do with emotions that you feel. Because of this, empathy develops as the experience of feeling understood happens again and again over time.
The most interesting thing about leafing through family albums is that it facilitates a vivid experience of a great moment that accumulates along with thousands of others like it. Together the memories become a kind of personal video library. Each time a happy moment is re-lived one of the saved tapes starts playing, and the virtuous cycle continues.
ACTIVITY: To help younger kids name their emotions, scan some family photos that represent the most common emotions, stick them on the refrigerator, and write a label for each member of the family that says “Today I feel like this.”