Bullying. Hazing. Ostracizing. No parent wants her child to go through these pitfalls of adolescent life, much less perpetrate them. One of the most important parts of a child’s education is her social education—and teaching kids empathy can go a long way towards eliminating anti-social behaviors like these. Empathy is pro-social; it teaches kids to take into account the thoughts and feelings of others and to act in accordance with principles of peace, tolerance and respect. While compassion takes a lifetime to nurture, these activities will help you teach your children the virtue of caring.
Name That Mood: Feelings Flashcards
The first step to creating emotionally aware children is to help them recognize facial cues and body language. Studies show that even babies have an acute awareness of expression and infants as young as 18 months of age can recognize “happy”, “sad”, “mad,” etc. Create a set of feelings flashcards to help your children master this important skill.
What You Need:
- Index cards
- Tape or glue
- Pictures of people from magazines who represent feelings
What You Do:
Cut out pictures of people from magazines that represent the emotions you want your child to learn. Very young children should stick to basic human emotions: happy, sad, angry, afraid, etc. For older children, you can represent more nuanced emotions—surprise, confusion, confidence or shyness, for example, and use more body language prompts than facial features. Glue or tape these pictures to index cards, and on the other side write the emotion represented by that picture. Use the cards as you would any flash cards—hold the card up and have your child guess the emotion and perhaps try to replicate it: “Good! Now how would you show through your body that you were happy about something?”
For older kids, you might vary the flashcard game by giving the cards to the kids and allowing them to apply the emotions to different scenarios like this: “If your friend Sam broke his ankle and had to miss coming to your birthday party, how do you think he would feel? What if you saved him a slice of cake and stopped by his house later that day? Then how would he feel?”
Make a Talking Stick
Often, one of the hardest parts of empathy for children is respectfully listening to another’s point of view—especially if it is a point of view they find disagreeable. Native American tribes have a long tradition of using a talking stick as an aid in courteous communication and governing. The concept behind it is simple: the person holding the talking stick speaks his or her mind, and the other people make respectful and sincere efforts to understand that person’s point of view until they get the stick and are thus enabled to speak. In his book The 8th Habit, author Stephen Covey champions the way in which the talking stick “represents how people with differences can come to understand one another through mutual respect.”
What You Need:
- A tree branch or large-circumference wooden dowel (or, if your children are younger and could injure themselves with these items, simply use an empty paper towel roll)
- Markers, paints, findings (beads, ribbon, feathers, etc.)
What You Do:
Help your child to decorate the tree branch, dowel or paper towel roll with markers, paints, findings, etc. If you have more than one child, even decorating the talking stick can be a lesson in empathetic communication as you encourage your children to take turns and collaborate on designs. At the next sign of a disagreement, or if an important family decision needs to be made that involves input from all members, break out the talking stick and see how much it improves your children’s ability to listen to each other and treat others’ opinions as important. When children feel that their own views are valuable, they are more likely to be considerate of others’ views.
Opportunities abound for showing kids that kindness counts. Look for the teaching moment in everyday activities, like going to the playground or picking up toys. Children learn by mimicking adult behaviors; the surest way to teach empathy is to model it yourself.