Building Empathy and Perspective-taking Skills (One Week Prior to U.S. Elections in a Highly Divided Nation) May Just Be the Vaccination for Our Spirits
Though the pirate, princess, and fireman may or may not be going out trick or treating this year due to the phantom pandemic, it’s likely your kids are dressing up and celebrating in some big or small way nonetheless. Though fear may abound with kids worrying about spooky specters and parents worrying about COVID transmission, there is more to the Halloween experience than just candy and frights. Children are encouraged to be someone or something else for one night a year. They are not only permitted but emboldened to become a character from their imaginings. Halloween gives them a chance to think and feel from another perspective. The skill of perspective-taking is one that has been found to assist in problem-solving, communication, racial and multi-cultural understanding, empathy, and academic performance.
As I examine my own reaction to this holiday, look at the posts on Facebook and talk to friends, it seems we are all longing for the traditions of the past that have given us and our children joy. But drastically changed times call for a full reexamination of what we can expect and even what could hope will give us joy in a completely new context. In our deeply divided times in which so many are feeling isolated from loved ones, or school communities, or neighbors – some because of physical separations but also many because of philosophical separations – what the world needs now is empathy. How can we take the perspective of any one person in the world who lives inside a different skin tone, in a differently-structured family, and in another community where there is less money or more money, less opportunity or more opportunity? How can we wear the costume of that other person and attempt to feel and think as they do? What’s important to them? What keeps them up at night? Why should I have compassion for their position in the world?
As a parenting coach, I am asked to listen to stories without judgement. At times, those stories contain details from people’s lives that, if I didn’t have my coach hat on, might make me cringe or even feel outrage by my own sense of justice. Yet I listen because individuals need to feel heard and understood. And each time I do, I grow more generous, more open, and more compassionate of the stressors that all of us are under, regardless of belief system. The common ground I never have to search hard for and always discover is that all of us as parents are doing the best we can in this moment to raise our children with love.
So what if this moment we find ourselves in happens to be life-shaping for ourselves and our children? Crisis precedes transformation. So if we are intentional about the social and emotional lessons we are promoting, we just might raise a generation who are ready to work together in authentic collaboration to creatively solve our world’s complex problems. But they’ll have to know how to actively and openly listen to others’ perspectives and learn from the differences. Building those skill will require practice.
Perspective-taking involves interpreting another person’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations for action (see references for more on the Theory of Mind and Relational Frame Theory). This skill uses multiple executive functions of the brain including self-regulation, empathy, and cognitive flexibility (seeing a variety of solutions) making it a skill set that is now recognized as critical for school readiness and when in school, success in achieving academic goals.1
Researchers have been able to determine that three-year-olds can begin to take another’s perspective and some are even able to detect that another may hold a false belief about an observation.2 For example, the teacher says there is an apple in the bag. Many children believe this but one child might know by watching the teacher’s subtle nonverbal cues that the apple is under the table. As children begin to form relationships with peers, teachers and other care providers, they will become more adept at communicating their own needs, thoughts and feelings if they are attuned with the other person. A teacher’s facial expression may give away the anger they are feeling with an administrator. If your child reads the expression correctly, he may choose to wait for a better moment to bring up the fact that his homework was eaten by the dog.
So how can parents encourage and support their children in understanding another person’s perspective? I’ve included some general simple ideas first and then, added more specific ideas related to children’s stages of development.
One easy way to promote perspective-taking skills is to ask open-ended questions to prompt thinking. Extend the learning by using perspective-taking as a “Guess what…” game at dinnertime or on a car trip when your family is together. Parents I work with have had success with doing this by engaging their family in fun and productive conversation. Each person has the opportunity to guess what another was feeling or thinking at some point that day. It may be an opportunity to reflect and laugh about more stressful moments in the day. For example, “I could see that Dad was angry when I grabbed his newspaper this morning.” The person who is being commented on has to say whether or not the feeling the family member guessed is accurate and if not, what they actually were feeling. Over your macaroni and cheese, watch with great satisfaction as your children become more adept at articulating your perspectives and their own with practice.
I tried a second variation of this game at my own dinner table and found we laughed and enjoyed the fun of it. This one was “If ___ came to dinner, he would say _______.” We inserted famous people and family members and our six-year-old came up with remarkable responses and he instigated using the various voice intonations of those people. Here’s a brief sampling of our conversation:
Me: “Your teacher, Mrs. Art is here for dinner. What does she say?”
E: “This is a nice dinner.” (read in a sweet, high-pitched voice)
Dad: “Your three-year-old cousin…”
E: “I don’t like hot dogs.”
Me: “Your cool Uncle Jeremiah…”
E: “E, man, how ya doin.”
Me: “Emperor Palpatine, Ruler of the Dark Side…”
E: “I’ll kill you after dinner.”
Of course, children have differing abilities to take others’ perspectives as they develop. Primary school age children will not be ready for multi-cultural diplomacy at the United Nations’ mediation table just yet but plant the seeds and they will get there. The following are Robert Selman’s five stages of perspective-taking with my own practical suggestions for how you can support your children’s development through the years.3
- Undifferentiated perspective taking
Children have a sense of their own thoughts and feelings and the fact that their actions cause others to react but sometimes may confuse others’ thoughts and feelings with their own.
Easy practice: Look for chances to identify different kinds of emotions when looking at social media. “Look at that woman’s expression. Her face says to me she’s frustrated.” The posters with multiple facial expressions are great for expanding a feelings vocabulary. Check out this one. My son’s favorite is “lovestruck!” On Halloween, attempt to have your child take the perspective of the character or costume they are wearing. How can you act as Darth Vader would act? What is he thinking? What is he feeling?
2. Social-informational perspective taking
Children understand that different perspectives may mean that people have access to different information than they have.
Easy practice: When you are reading books with your child, stop when you find a belief, perspective, motivation or course of action that would differ from what your daughter would choose. Talk about the character’s perspective and motivation and from where it may have originated. Become intentional about selecting books authored by writers of differing colors and cultures and whose characters’ bring differing perspectives than your own. For book ideas, check out “Diversifying your Parent-Child Reading.”
3. Self-reflective perspective taking
Children can view others’ perspectives by interpreting others’ thoughts and feelings and recognize that other people can do the same.
Easy practice: Guide your children through a conflict situation by asking them, after cooling down, to tell what they are thinking and feeling and then, asking them to interpret what the other person is thinking and feeling. For more on reenacting a conflict, check out “Dramatizing the Drama.”
4. Third party perspective-taking
Children are able to mentally step outside of their own thoughts and feelings and another person’s and see a situation from a third person, impartial perspective.
Easy practice: This is a perfect time for a child to read biographies about other people’s lives that might interest them. Select a person together because you know something about the person’s life. Or read it yourself and talk about it with your child. My thirteen-year-old son and I are starting to read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” as he learns about the Holocaust in World History. He’s discovering a whole host of commonalities between his own life living through a pandemic and that of young Anne hiding in an attic through a genocide. And from the many differences in her life and his own, he is building an appreciation and a gratitude for all that he has including his freedom and cultural acceptance.
5. Societal perspective-taking
Begin to see that the third party perspective can be influenced by larger systems and societal values.
Easy practice: Offer opportunities to learn and experience other cultures reflecting on differing perspectives and values. Visit images and sites online of churches, synagogues or other places of worship outside of your belief system. Send letters of well wishes to a nursing home or homeless shelter. When you hear your children are interested in another culture, government or belief system, explore the opportunity through books, videos and other online resources. When possible, expand to in-person opportunities to interact such as volunteerism, festivals, travel and other mind-expanding experiences.
Halloween is a holiday that helps us explore our fears in a safe way. It allows us to think about our mortality and our belief systems while having fun. In addition, it gives us permission to be and think differently. While wrestling with your own feelings of worry or disappointment, why not channel that energy into purposeful action engaging your children in skill building? Though it’s tough to take care of ourselves when times are stressful, we may just nurture our own spirits when we focus on boosting our children’s strength to connect with others in meaningful ways that help your whole family grow. In the coming week, instead of spreading the virus of division, why not contribute to wellness by practicing perspective-taking with your children? Have a safe, healthy and happy Halloween!
- Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu
2. Heagle, A.I., & Rehfeldt, R.A. (2006). Teaching Perspective-Taking Skills to Typically Developing Children through Derived Relational Responding. Journal of Early and Intensive Behavior Intervention. 3 (1) 1-34.
3. Selman, R.L. (1975). Level of social perspective taking and the development of empathy in children: Speculations from a social-cognitive viewpoint. Journal of Moral Education. 5 (1) 35-43.
Adapted from the original published on Oct. 24, 2013.