Teaching Empathy to Children

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 6.01.41 PMFour year olds Zoe and Ben are playing in the wading pool at the park.

Zoe has a bucket and some colorful cups, which she’s engrossed in filling and pouring. Now and again she looks up to show her mum what fun it is to fill the big pail and then pour the water into the smaller cups so it all spills out. Ben has no toys so he’s making splashes with his hands and feet and full body slams into the water. The mums are chatting.

All is peaceful. Well, as peaceful as a pond full of preschoolers can be.

Suddenly there’s a wail of indignation and the mums look up.

Ben has collected a few of the colorful cups Zoe had floating around her. Zoe goes to grab them from him. As she holds onto one Ben pulls back which unsteadies Zoe and she falls chest-first into the shallow water. She gets up, unhurt but indignant, and goes to reach again for the cup. At this point Ben raises it above his head hoping she can’t reach. Assessing the situation pretty quickly Zoe goes to Plan B, and uses her bucket to bop Ben sharply on the nose. Yup – that works! Ben drops the cup, puts both hands on his face and bursts out crying.

Now the mums are up.

  • What would you do if Ben was your child?
  • What would you do if Zoe was your child?
  • Is there a “right” way of intervening, and if there is, what philosophy of “rightness” is being enforced?

Before I weigh in, here are ways some parents respond:

  • Remove Ben from the pool with harsh words on the “you’re a bad boy” theme, and put him in time out for taking something which is not his;

[What might Ben tell himself when the adults around him only see things from the other kid’s point of view?]

  • Remove Zoe from the pool, maybe with a smack (because she hit someone else and that’s not a nice thing to do) and put her in time out;

[What might Zoe tell herself when the adults around her only see things from the other kid’s point of view?]

  • Smother Ben with hugs and kisses and “oh-diddums-are-you-alright-let-me-see-your-poor-sore- nose-whiles-Mummy-kisses-it”

[What might Ben tell himself when the adults around him only see things from his point of view?]

  • Smother Zoe with righteousness and console her because “that nasty boy had no right to take your stuff and he pushed you first so he had it coming to him anyway…”

[What might Zoe tell herself when the adults around her only see things from her point of view?]

OK – so an empathic teaching moment?

Each adult would go to their child and lead him or her gently out of the water, wrap them in a towel and sit them on their lap. Then (if they’d read this blog first, of course!!) they could work their way through these five steps:

1. Adopt a “Teachable moment” Attitude

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 6.09.14 PMYou need the “Oh good – a teachable moment” attitude. Not the “I can’t believe these kids are so dreadful” attitude. You need the “Messy moments are behavioral rough drafts” attitude. Not the “Bad behavior is caused by bad kids” attitude.

Ben and Zoe have no idea how to navigate the two-kids-wanting-the-same-toy dilemma. Learning how to share stuff is tough and right now you have a chance to be part of this “teachable moment.” So, right then as you intervene, right as you take in that deep breath, invite your inner Mr. Rogers and bring with you compassion, curiosity, a light touch and some creativity.

2. Broaden The Context

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 6.11.57 PMWhether we’re tiny or all-grown-up, it’s tempting to see the world-according-to-me. The first step in helping your child get a bigger picture is to broaden the context. Offer an establishing shot. Pull the focus way back and describe what went down in a non-judging way.

As in, “Boy, I just saw two kids having a tough time. A little girl brought some toys to the pool and the little boy wanted to play with those toys and wasn’t sure how to do that. And both kids got a bit hurt – one falling in the water and one because he got his nose hit. That must have been a tough few minutes for both of them.”

See what this does? Now your child hears a non-blaming description that captures the action of the two protagonists. Already the experience is now in some space beyond the initial small “It’s all about me” frame of reference.

In this case it’s not so hard to present a neutral narrative, and it’s important to not use any negative descriptions like “The bratty girl wouldn’t share!” or “The pushy boy took what he wanted.” Most helpful is to stick with the facts and dump the adjectives.

3 Label Feelings

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 6.17.02 PMIf we want our children to understand how someone else might feel, we have to help them learn how they feel. In fact, studies show that children who are highly empathic are more likely to have been well empathized-with. (Barnett MA. 1987. Empathy and related responses in children. In N Eisenberg and J Strayer (eds): Empathy and its development. New York: Cambridge University Press.)

I’ve written a lot about emotions in this blog.

Type  “Emotions” into the search box, or click parrott-emotions-tree-2001(3) for some Emotions Vocabulary. But in brief, labeling feelings is just that – it’s you giving a vocabulary word to the child’s emotion, again with a non-judgmental or non-directive attitude.

If you’re Ben’s mum you might say “I bet you felt a bit sad that we forgot our toys today Ben. And it looked like you felt frustrated when the little girl wouldn’t let you use one of hers. And then, when she used her bucket to hit your nose I’m guessing you felt shocked and hurt and then a bit mad at her too, eh?”

Same idea for Zoe’s mum – to acknowledge her combination of anger that the boy took her cup; embarrassed when she fell over; frustrated she couldn’t reach the cup; a bit triumphant when she thought of hitting him, and then surprised and upset when the cup hurt him.

Emotions are like the weather: they are best noticed and reported upon without judgment. If it’s cloudy with a chance of meatballs, your grumpiness won’t lessen the meatball mess. If your kid is angry with a hint of jealousy – same difference. Naming these feelings won’t doom your kid to their permanent influence. In fact the opposite is true. Naming them helps your child move through them.

4. Swap Perspectives

Screen shot 2015-06-17 at 6.38.04 PMRight here – Step 4 – is the heart of teaching empathy. It’s the big juicy opportunity that the more typical parenting responses miss (like the ones above in red and blue).

The parents who use punishment miss the chance to empathize with their own child. The parents who are overly solicitous miss the chance to empathize with the other child.

So right after you’ve spent time with your own child understanding and labeling what they felt, it’s time to invite them to try out a different perspective. In this case, to see things from the other child’s point of view.

As in, “Ben, I wonder how the little girl felt when she saw you playing with her cup. Maybe she felt worried you might keep it. Or maybe she felt mad because she was about to use it.

You can use the child’s immediate parallel experience too;

As in “You know how hurt and shocked you were when the girl hit your nose? I wonder if she felt a bit like that when she fell in the water as you both pulled on that cup?”

Building empathy is all about perspective-taking.

If it feels a bit raw to use the immediate examples your child has just been through, you can reference a book or movie where a character might have felt hurt and shocked. Or look about you at the pool – are there other dramas unfolding that your child might now understand a bit more fully?

5. Leverage the Moment

Once your child has experienced being empathized with (you listened and accepted his or her feelings); and once your child has taken a stab at empathizing with the person they just had a fight with (you helped your child imagine how this other kid might be feeling), it’s time to tie a bow around the whole thing with the great “teachable moment question” “How could this have been better?”

Depending upon the ages of the children, you will totally guide these conversations (ages zero to 6 or so); brainstorm together (ages 6 – 11 or so); or allow the young person to come up with his or her own age-appropriate solutions. But for our two four year olds Zoe and Ben, you might say something like:

Zoe, now that we’ve seen how much Ben wanted to play with some toys, and how sad he was that he didn’t bring any to the pool do you think it might work to see if he’d like to borrow a couple cups if you knew you’d get them back. Shall I help you ask?”

Or

Ben, now that we’ve seen how worried Zoe was that you might take and keep her cup and how mad she was about how you held it over your heard, do you think it might be good to try asking first – to see if you could just borrow it? Shall I help you give that a try?”

 ***********************************

I know this is super specific – but the five principles for teaching empathy remain, no matter what the age of your child. Your way of dealing with this will grow with your child. And – as I think you’ll discover – these simple teachable steps lead beautifully into the wonderfully deep work showcased last week in Roman Kruznaric‘s work.

FIRST TIME HERE?

This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you are interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.

OVERVIEW

SKILLS FOR UNDERSTANDING

SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

 SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity

SKILLS FOR CONNECTING

SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

30 thoughts on “Teaching Empathy to Children

  1. Meredith Turner Chapman

    Gemma, this is a wonderful article! I have thought so much about this topic and its importance as a parent and as a teacher. So often I’ve seen parents making the mistakes you list at the top of the article. It’s sad because some of the children who have grown up with my own children have indeed become emotionally stymied and unhealthy. Since it takes a village to raise emotionally healthy young people, can you suggest ways in which you can intervene diplomatically and with skill when you see a situation going bad in which parents make those mistakes and lose sight of the big picture?

    Reply
    1. gemmautting Post author

      Dear Meredith, Thank you for this thoughtful comment. I love your question and if it is alright with you, I’ll use it as the springboard for next Wednesday’s blog. Yes – figuring out how to intervene diplomatically is an inquiry I shall enjoy pondering between now and next week. Do let me know if you have seen things that you’ve tried, or others have tried, that have worked well. I’d love to include them (crediting you of course) next week. Warmly and with gratitude for you! Gemma

      Reply
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