Being empathetic? It is a quality we’d all like our children to have but a hard concept to explain to little minds.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another…
Now, you may think this is unrealistic for a small child as it is believed, by many, that the age of reason and loss of developmental egocentricity isn’t until closer to the age of seven (Piaget, J. (1951).
However, Martin Hughs a developmental psychologist found that in fact, children aged three had the ability to decentre. This is the ability to focus on more than one aspect of a situation at the same time (Hughs. M 1975), a necessary precursor to empathy.
Specifically, Hughs found that preschoolers were able to decentre when presented with a task that ‘made sense to the child’ (Hughs. M 1975).
And in here in lies the key to teaching children to be empathetic.
The concept of empathy needs to make sense to the child, they need to relate to the feelings, the situation, the actions of others and be able to put some of this understanding into their own words.
My TWO SIMPLE STEPS to achieve this:
STEP NUMEBR ONE:
1. Use meaningful and relevant examples!
Recently my eldest was given a present from her Grandparents who had been on an overseas trip. She eagerly opened it, then frowned and then scowled, stating loudly “I don’t like green!” (it was a green t-shirt).
As the parent every part of me screamed “Oh no. Don’t sound spoilt and ungrateful… I thought I’d raised you better than that” and I was ready to step in… but then I stopped and thought.
This was a perfect teachable moment… Miss Three is a kind child, she was not intending to be rude or ungrateful, she just really loves the colour red and not the colour green and in her mind she couldn’t get past that.
She hadn’t considered that the present had come from a long way away or that it is special if someone thinks of getting you something when they are away because they miss you. And fair enough, being only three.
But, this gave me an opportunity to help her to understand!
And so instead of immediately getting cranky and demanding she apologise, which would have meant nothing to her, we removed ourselves from the situation to have a little chat. I gave her the following real life example to have a think about…
“On Sunday it is Fathers’ Day, right? You have made lots of really special things for Daddy. You have made a present at school and cards galore at home. Now imagine if on Fathers’ Day when you give Daddy all of the things you have made for him, imagine if he said ‘Oh they’re cool. But I only like yellow, and these things aren’t yellow. So no thanks, I don’t really want them’.
“How do you think that would make you would feel?”
“Exactly, because you had gone to a lot of effort to make something for Daddy and it doesn’t really matter what colour it is, it is special because it is something you made just for him, right?”
“Well Nana and Da have been a long way away. And they missed you so much that one day when Nana was in a shop she saw that really cool bear t-shirt and thought you’d love it. She was thinking of you and decided to buy it for you. Now, I’m sure she asked for a red one but they only had green. Would you rather that she didn’t get anything? Or got you the green one?”
“But I don’t like green”
“I know. But that’s not what I asked… would you rather that she got the green one or got nothing?”
“The green one”
“Ok. Now what do you think you might need to go and say to Nana?”
I’m going to pause the conversation here as this brings me to
STEP NUMBER 2:
2. Children need to say more than ‘I’m sorry’
I do not believe in making children say a simple “Sorry”. It is important they add to this with an explanation. “Sorry for…”
Now you might need to help them label the rest of that sentence when they are young but modelling this and then encouraging them to say it allows them to distinguish ‘what’ they should be sorry about. Otherwise ‘sorry’ becomes an arbitrary word, with no meaning to them. They say it simply because we are making them do so and they learn very little from the exchange and very little about empathy!
“What do you think you might need to say to Nana?”
“Sorry for saying I don’t like the t-shirt. It was just because it is green. I do like that you brought me a present”
“That sounds lovely and maybe a thank you too for bringing something home for you.”
Now Miss Three is quite a talker and an articulate little one. So you may find that you don’t get this long a response with a ‘sorry’ and that is totally fine.
Even if it is as simple as ‘Sorry for hitting you’, it is just important that with an apology the reason, action, emotion etc. is labelled so that the child begins to understand ‘why’ you say sorry and therefore ‘empathise’ with another individual.
Miss Three took her time but did eventually go and find Nana, give her a cuddle and say all that she wanted to say.
This ‘think time’ is also important for little ones. Often as adults, we jump in and rush them before they have had a chance to process our explanation and/or request… But when we give them time, often the learning becomes more valuable because they are instigating the action of; sharing, apologising etc.
But this is a topic for another week. : )
Your hands-on helper,
P.S. This week's FREE e-book has a nifty way to teach your child to be gentle. You can get your copy here.