"Try taking a walk in his shoes." "Understand it from my point of view." "How do you think that made her feel?" We are met daily with the need to imagine the world from another's eyes--whether it's dealing with a fight between two siblings, explaining a decision your child (or anyone else, for that matter) is less than thrilled about, or overcoming seemingly insurmountable communication challenges. And we have plenty of catchphrases to prove it. But how exactly do we do it, and how can you help your kids to practice the same?
Before you can imagine your way into another's point of view, you have to first understand that how others feel is different from the way you feel. It may sound obvious, but for young children, that's not always easy. Kids ages 2-7 often confuse their thoughts and feelings with those of others. The first step in cultivating empathy thus begins with helping them understand that not everyone is feeling the same way they are, and by supplying them with the tools they need to identify when others are feeling sad, lonely, or in need of help.
PRACTICE LABELING EMOTIONS
As Yale professor and founder of the RULER approach, Marc Brackett, has found, the ability to label emotions is a critical component of empathy, and often the first step when it comes particularly to younger kids.
1. Pass the face: When working with younger kids--ages 2 to 7--we play this game to help them begin to think about the way that others are feeling. First, make a face that is associated with an emotion (e.g. happy, sad, scared, or surprised), and have the child mimic that face and name the emotion the face displays. Then, switch roles. This will draw their attention to others’ faces and they will begin to understand how they can infer how others are feeling by looking at their face.
2. Make the most of story-time: Extensive research points to the role of storytelling in helping kids to develop empathy, enabling them to step into an imagined world, and to encounter characters, circumstances, and events they would never otherwise experience. Rather than just reading a book and calling it a day, try asking questions like, “How would you feel if you were [person/character]? How do you think [person/character] might be feeling? How do you know?” Such questions will help children begin to think about others’ points of view. You can follow those questions up with, "Can you think up a time when you felt the same way?"
Yet helping children to recognize sadness when they see it is only part of the story: as kids get older and develop a greater capacity for understanding others' perspectives, they must also learn to understand why a person feels that way. It's this second step that leads from empathy to action, enabling them to practice more helpful behavior, and to prevent conflict and hurt feelings in the first place. A few easy strategies for helping your kids predict how others feel:
3. Teach your child to notice tone of voice and body language: As Ashoka Fellow Mary Gordon has said, one of the best things a parent can do is not to analyze your child's emotions, but rather to explain your own. Start by saying, “I feel [state your emotion] when you [state the action that causes the emotion].” Ask your child, “How can you tell I’m feeling [emotion]?” Explain that our tone of voice and body language usually show how we are feeling, and give examples of your own behavior (e.g. my tone of voice sounds dreary, and my head is down). Let children practice this by having them say the phrase, “I’m sorry,” in several different ways (e.g. happy, angry, or sad). Ask, “Which one would make you feel good if your friend said it to you? Which one would not make you feel good?” And what works for understanding tone of voice can also work when applied to body language: beginning again by modeling the behavior, have your child repeat back a series of phrases employing different body language. (For ex: “Do you want to play with me?” or “I don’t want to play that.”)
4. Explore other perspectives in literature and media: One way to do this is to take a classic story (from a book or film) and ask children to think about the story from different characters’ perspectives. Ask them, “How is [character] feeling? Why does [character] act that way?” Try reading The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, by Jon Scieszka, which tells the classic story of the three little pigs from the wolf’s point of view, or use any familiar story.
When children are able to understand others’ perspectives, they are more capable of experiencing empathy for those who are distressed and need help. Children who have this skill take others’ feelings into consideration before they act, and are more likely to stand up and act when someone needs their help.