Kids say the darndest things! We have all experienced the pure innocence and honesty of a child. “ Mommy, your teeth look yellow” or “Daddy, your nose is big.” Maybe you’ve experienced what’s even more humiliating … your child’s sharing their innocent, honest and totally inappropriate thoughts to a stranger. Or, maybe your child isn’t the “verbal” type and these examples don’t sound familiar. Lucky you!
But what about grabbing toys away from other children and not noticing the other child is now crying? How about hitting their baby brother or sister and feeling little to no remorse? You can’t help but wonder what happened to your sweet innocent baby, and why some of their behaviors resemble, well, a little monster.
No, the behaviors described above–or similar ones that might be found in your home–do not make these children monsters. In fact, children ages three to five years old simply are not developmentally capable of understanding empathy. However, with the help and leadership from parents and teachers, children can develop a sense of empathy, caring, altruism and appreciation for other people and different situations.
Empathy might seem quite simple and straightforward to adults. However, empathy is quite complex which makes it difficult for preschoolers to understand. Empathy consists of three skills:
1. Self- awareness and the ability to distinguish one’s feelings
2. Being able to take another person’s perspective as to “putting yourself in others’ shoes”
3. The ability to regulate one’s emotions
Being aware of the three skills needed to understand and execute empathy is a significant step for parents. Think of these skills as the foundation for helping you teach your child empathy and appreciation. Keeping this perspective in mind, we have identified five main areas in which you can apply the foundations:
1. Role Model – Set a good example. Show and express your feelings. Explain why you feel happy, or a little sad. This helps children understand the connection between actions or events and the emotions someone is feeling.
2. Language and Communication – Label feelings and situations. “How does your friend’s face look now that you took his snack without asking? How can you help him feel better?” Also, specifically praise any empathic behavior your child does, or you witness together. “That was very nice of that girl to share her ball with that boy. Do you see how happy he is playing with the ball?”
3. Volunteer – Spend time with local charities donating your time, clothes, canned goods, etc. When your child sees others in need it helps them to understand why they should be grateful for what they have, as well as caring for others. This is also a great opportunity for them to experience how their hard work can help others while also making them happy.
4. Responsibility – When children are given responsibilities (cleaning their room, emptying the recycling and sorting laundry) it’s easier for them to understand the hard work that goes into the success of something. Having responsibilities can contribute to a child’s exhibiting more empathy to those who work hard, appreciating the work individuals do and the help they give others. Whether it’s making dinner, erasing the chalkboard or a simple regular task, give your child responsibilities they can handle and add to them as the child gets older.
5. Manners – Both at home and out and about, model good manners while also encouraging and reminding your child to use theirs. “Please, Thank you and Excuse me” are always good beginners. Also try working on non- verbal manners. Staring, pointing, sticking out their tongues, wearing caps in restaurants are examples. Explain why these non-verbal actions can be hurtful, and why it is nice and appreciated by others when we say “Please and Thank You.”
While it is difficult for preschool aged children to understand empathy, it is our jobs as adults to teach them how to be respectful, appreciative, caring and empathetic to every individual. We encourage you to use the above ideas as a guide in helping your child to better understand their feelings and actions towards others. We are here at www.ifnotyouwho.org to answer any questions.
Elissa Sungar is the Co-Creator of If Not You, Who? a free website that offers easy and fun in-home educational activities that help prepare children for kindergarten and life. Her passion for early childhood education grew out of her experience as a pre-school teacher at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School. Elissa loves hiking, running, tennis, yoga, cute workout clothes, good cheese, great baked goods and exploring Denver! Twitter: @ElissaINYW