I want to start with a story about some third graders I watched at a birthday party. Picture a sunny day with green grass, a tall tree, and 15 children talking and jumping excitedly while parents strung a piñata to a thick branch. It was time to break the piñata and all the excited children formed a line. Each one giggled when they were blindfolded and spun around several times. They all joined in cheering each person as they tried their luck. However, in the background was one of the children who was in a wheelchair with a broken leg. While the adults asked him to participate, he opted out. He enjoyed watching the others swing wildly hitting both the air and the piñata. Finally, one of the children broke the piñata and the candy fell to the ground. All the children flew toward the candy and scooped up as much as they could find. The adults were trying to gather some for the child in the wheel chair, but before they could collect a good amount, one child ran with his huge bounty to the child in the wheel chair. He gave it all to him, smiled and pushed him to the next activity. I still cry when I remember this act of empathy, compassion and inclusion.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is a powerful word. It really means stepping into someone’s shoes and understanding their feelings. Empathy helps us care for our family members, friends, co-workers, and people we meet each day. It gives us the power to help those in need and to reduce or share someone’s hardship. It reduces bullying and brings individuals together in a community. Empathy starts when someone reads or understands our feelings and then connects with us by showing caring emotions. Compassion starts when someone offers help. Empathy can be expressed when someone needs help, is hurt, has strong negative emotions or is even excited and happy. The first step to empathy is being able to read another person’s emotions. To start to read emotions we look at someone’s facial and body cues.
Think about all the times during the day you read the facial and body cues of others. I do when I wake in the morning and check on how my children are feeling. I do when I give my children a direction or when I say their chores are complete and they can go outside to play. I do when I see a co-worker and we are speaking on a serious issue or when someone shares an event and experience with me. I read facial and body cues to know what someone else is thinking and feeling. When I understand someone’s feelings, I can be a better friend and we can have a stronger relationship. When I know how someone feels, I can then have empathy for his or her experiences, which means we have a connection and we are more likely to help each other. When we have a better understanding of each other, we are more likely to lift each other up – true for children and adults. Just think about the third graders.
Our children learn how to read facial and body cues by watching us do it. They also learn how to show empathy by watching us do it. They start to understand other’s emotions in preschool and build on it through childhood. Building these skills will reduce bullying and will increase acceptance and community building. We can help our children practice at any age and have fun with it!
A Few Fun Games to Try at Home
- Feeling Charades: Have family members pick feelings out of a hat and act those feelings out. Make sure you use your whole body to act those out. Then you can help your children see both facial and body changes with the feelings. You also can add in new feeling vocabulary to the hat as you see success (add in exuberant for excited or melancholy or morose for sad and unhappy). You extend feeling vocabulary and understanding feelings at the same time.
- Mirror Mirror: Have a hand-held mirror and ask your children to make a facial expression in the mirror. They may really like to see what they look like with different emotions on their faces. This practice will help him then recognize when others are showing those emotions. Often children like to make lots of faces into the mirror anyway, so this could be a fun way to connect labels to those faces.
- Helpful Word List: Have your children develop helpful word lists at home for when they see someone is hurt or when someone is sad or feeling left out. Remember to let children know to use these words when they are in safe situations (for example, not with a stranger). Helpful words might be:
- Are you OK?
- Do you need help?
- How are you?
- Do you want to play?
Older Children and Teenagers:
- Feelings Jeopardy: Have a guessing game where you either act out a situation or talk about a situation and then ask what emotion someone would feel in that situation. An example might be, “A friend forgot that the math test was today until he walked in class and saw the teacher pass out papers. His face changed from relaxed to…” Your child would answer, “What is really worried or panicked?” You can add in, “What can you do to offer help or help him feel he can make it through?” This extension helps older children begin to see how they can make good decisions for themselves and their friends.
- What Would You Think or Need?: You can pose different questions to older children and teenagers about what they might feel or think in different situations. You can also ask them what they would need from a friend. Help them know that what they think and need is similar to what their friends might think and need. You can use situations you read in books or see in the media. You can pause TV shows or stop reading in the book when characters are at a point you think showing empathy would be helpful. Ask your children, “What would you think or need if this were you?” You can ask a follow up question like, “So if you were his friend, what would you do to help?” Older children and adolescents will also begin to form ideas for positive decision making and helpful behaviors that can keep themselves and others safe.
- How Would You?: You can modify the What Would You Think or Need game to specifically ask about situations where someone is excluded or is teased or bullied. Use media to help initiate the conversation. Pause books or TV shows when you see an incident of teasing or bullying and ask, “How would you help the person in need? How would you offer support?” Asking children and teenagers these questions gets them thinking about how difficult it can be and how they may act in these hard situations. Offer praise for any ideas your children think of. Help them think of ideas too, they will need to know which adults at school and in the community can be helpful and how to talk with them. They will also need guidance to stay safe in tricky situations.
Good Old-Fashioned Conversation:
We can help reinforce empathy and understanding other people’s emotions by talking about situations at home. You can talk about a situation where someone noticed your feelings or you felt empathy for someone else. Talk through the situation and how it felt to connect with another person. Talk about when you saw your children show empathy and tell them you were proud of them. Remind them that feeling empathy for others helps them support others and come to the aide of others in need. We want our children to stand up for what they believe and what others need. I was so impressed with the third grader who shared his candy cache and included the other child in the wheel chair. He knew what his friend needed by understanding his emotions and stepping into his shoes.
Recognizing emotions in ourselves and others helps us with building relationships and connecting with others. Let’s practice with our children so they can continue to connect with friends and understand how others feel. Let’s build empathy, compassion and inclusion.