Promoting Children’s Perspective-taking and Empathy through Halloween
The pirate, construction worker, fireman, train conductor, doctor, ghost and Dark Lord Vader have all made guest appearances in our house over the past weeks in hot anticipation of Halloween. Though fear may abound with kids worrying about spooky specters and parents worrying about nut allergies, cavities, and street safety, 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, multi-cultural understanding, empathy, and academic performance.
But how does perspective-taking relate to all of those aforementioned critical life skills? When do children begin learning to take another’s perspective? And how can parents encourage the development of these skills? 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 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 interacting with others. “Look at that woman’s expression in the store. 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!”
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.
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.
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.
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 churches, synagogues or other places of worship outside of your belief system. Volunteer in 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, 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. Take advantage of this great opportunity to practice perspective-taking with your children. Have a safe, 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.
Originally published on Oct. 24, 2013.