Teaching Kids How to Take Another’s Perspective

Conflict on the playground. Two kids fighting over a toy shovel in the sandboxPerspective taking is very limited in young children. Like, how two-year-olds close their eyes to hide when playing hide and seek. The thought is, ‘if they can’t see themselves, you can’t see them.’ Three-year-olds stand in front of you and don’t realize you can’t see through them. Even four years olds get confused when you don’t already know things they think about or dream about.

Perspective taking and emotion understanding are foundation pieces of a developing sense of empathy. Being able to understand how another is feeling starts with understanding that the other exists separately, and then that they see and later think and feel differently.

By grade school, the hope is children have a basic understanding of others’ views, thoughts and emotions as separate from their own and important.

Ways to Teach

Other’s View – As a way to introduce differences in perspective taking, you might have each person stand on a different side of a statue or play structure and describe or draw what they see. You might also read and discuss Seven Blind Mice by Young. In this story, seven blind mice meet an elephant, and each mouse assumes it is something different based on the part of the elephant they can feel.

View of Artwork – You could visit an art museum and discuss how a painting makes each of you feel, or what a sculpture makes each of you think about. You might discuss how your perceptions might differ based on individual experiences.

Responses to Music – You could listen together and discuss the way it makes you each feel and why. You might talk about similarities and differences in what the lyrics mean to each of you.

Recognize Emotions – It can be helpful to label and discuss emotions often. This includes your’s, their’s and other’s emotions. When appropriate, you might discuss differences in emotional responses, both what the emotions are and different ways people express emotions.

Encourage Role Play – When children pretend to be a doctor, teacher, police officer, grandma or puppy they are stepping into another’s role. Encourage them to tell their story, to think about how they would feel in a situation or what they would do and why.

Ask Questions to Find Out More – This might be encouraging your child to ask a tour guide a question at a museum or to ask a friend a question about his new puppy. Let your child know that asking others questions is a good way to find out more about all kinds of things. In our social skills groups, we take turns having one child sit in a chair to answer questions about a favorite toy, activity or pet. Others sitting on the floor take turns asking questions to learn more.

Play Can You Imagine – After a birthday party you might ask, “can you imagine if you were the only girl at that party? How would it be different?” About school, “can you imagine being the youngest kid in all your classes?” or, “can you imagine being a new kid in the middle of the school year? It might be tough to make new friends when everyone else already knows each other.” or, “can you imagine how hard it might be if you still had difficulty with reading?” The point is to put your child in a place to think about the challenges others face. There are countless options here.

Story Books – There are several children’s storybooks that may be helpful in the discussions about perspective taking, other’s emotions and impact on others.

  • How Full Is Your Bucket for Kids by Rath – A nice way to introduce impact on others and how behaviors shape feelings.
  • Stand in My Shoes by Sornson – A good introduction to viewing other’s emotions.
  • What if Everybody Did That by Javernick – A light way to look at the impact of negative behaviors.
  • Everyone by Neal – How we all share similar emotions.
  • They All Saw a Cat by Wenzel – How “perspective shapes what we see.”
  • Seven Blind Mice by Young – An introduction to perspective taking.

Conflicts in Story Books – Many children’s storybooks contain some type of conflict. When characters are in conflict you might discuss how the various characters view the conflict, why they view it the way they do, and how they might be feeling about it.

Freezing, Comparing and Coaching through Conflicts – After a bit of practice in storybooks, you might freeze your children in or follow conflict moments to discuss how each viewed the conflict, why they had their view, and how each was feeling during. This works best when emotions aren’t too high or later, once everyone is calm.

Discuss Other’s Efforts, Progress and Struggles – This includes pointing out a soccer teammate’s hard work, a classmate’s study habits or a friend’s working through their own conflict. This isn’t meant as pressure on your child, just a comment that they aren’t alone in the process.

Acknowledge Their Reasons in Conflict with You – This may be the most difficult on the list; it can be helpful to occasionally acknowledge their point of view during disagreements. This reflective listening tends to validate their side, let them know you are listening. This might be, “I hear you really want that. All of your friends have one and  it seems like you feel left out.” or, “you really don’t like what I just said. I get that it is upsetting. You want it the other way.” You might use this to check in by asking, “am I understanding this correctly?” You might also ask them to identify or rephrase your point.

Talk through Your Own Conflicts and Point Out the Various Sides – When your children see you in conflict, it can be helpful to step back and explain the various sides. Model looking at the problem from various perspectives and including that information in how you solve the problem.



Ways to Teach Apologies and Avoid Forcing Them

Girl with Sorry sign

When children are young

  • Model apologies – Young children learn best through modeling. When you are in the wrong about things, apologize to them and others easily. If they see and hear you being comfortable with apologies, they are more likely to follow suit.
  • Suggest and encourage apologies – I have read that others suggest we not encourage young children to apologize, because they don’t know what they are saying, they don’t understand the meaning of, “I’m sorry.” While I agree, young children don’t often understand the full meaning, I chalk up encouraging them to say, “I’m sorry,” to a general social grace. We do encourage young children to say, “please,” and, “thank you,” and, “excuse me,” which they also don’t understand. I think it’s fine to encourage them to build good social habits.

As children are older

  • Give choices about how to apologize – Once your child is five years old, I think it’s fine to offer choices such as writing a note or drawing a picture to apologize. You might offer choices of apologizing now or in a few minutes, saying it out loud or whispering it in someone’s ear (provided that the receiver is agreeable).
  • Give time to apologize – It can actually be helpful to the situation to give kids a few minutes to calm down and collect themselves. They might take a minute to think about what happened and decide what to say before apologizing.

Discuss the three parts of apologies

  • Say it – Saying, “I’m sorry,” is the first part of an apology. It’s great if it’s heartfelt and honest. It can be dismissive if it’s just thrown out there, or worse, yelled at another child.
  • Feel it – Feeling sorry for what you’ve done is the next step. You might ask your child to think about how they would feel in the other child’s position. You might discuss how they feel now about what happened and about having to apologize. You might touch base after and talk about how it feels after an apology.
  • Do something to make it better – Making amends is another important step. This might be helping a friend hold their ice pack on a related injury or helping rebuild the block tower that was knocked down.

Avoid forced apologies

Forced apologies happen in one of two ways. Either the child is angry and resists having to apologize, or the child is embarrassed and hesitant to apologize. In both cases, the child’s own negative emotions often get in the way of developing a sense of empathy.

If your child is angry and not feeling sorry about what happened, and you force the apology, the result is predictable. Your angry child likely will storm over to the other, bark, “SORRY!” at them and leave abruptly. Rather than teaching your child to feel empathy, this situation seems to provoke feelings in the opposite direction. Your child may actually resent the other child more for his role in this interaction. The resentment overrides any developing empathy. Your child also learns that saying sorry, even if he doesn’t mean it, is enough to fix a wrong-doing.

If your child is embarrassed by the idea of having to apologize, but is forced to do so, the result differs but is just as predictable. With a push, your child may slowly approach the other child and then quietly say, “sorry,” while fighting back tears. Empathy requires the child to focus on the thoughts and feeling of another. When a child is embarrassed, he is thinking mostly of himself which inhibits the development of empathy.

Rather than force an apology from an angry or embarrassed child, you will have more success building a sense of empathy and teaching the language of sincere apologies through modeling. In the case of anger, take your child with you and say something like, “I am so sorry he did that. I would like to make it better.” Here, the parent is speaking for himself. The parent is sorry, the child is not. In the case of embarrassment, take your child with you and say something like, “he is so sorry. He would like to make it better.” The child actually is sorry, just reluctant to address it. Your child will have the benefit of hearing a sincere apology and optimally will be better able to focus on the feelings of the other child rather than his own.

Encouraging Children to be Kind

Children Sharing Pretend Food

Teaching children to be kind to others is part of teaching them about managing emotions and social interactions, and part of teaching them about a bigger sense of empathy. Children choosing to act with kindness towards others leads to fewer conflicts and better relationships.

I posted these ideas on a D.C. Urban Moms forum post the other day when someone asked for ways to teach children about kindness. I thought I’d share them here too as well. Here are a few ideas:

  • Read and discuss children’s books about empathy such as Stand in My Shoes by Sornsen or How Full is Your Bucket for Kids by Rath.
  • Read and discuss children’s books on friendship such as How to Be a Friend by Brown or Making Friends is an Art by Cook.
  • Model kindness yourself OFTEN.
  • Highlight when they are kind on their own by giving descriptive praise such as, “I saw you share that toy, that was very kind.” or, “that was so nice of you to wait for your friend.”
  • Give children lots of opportunities to connect with and be helpful to other people. Maybe participate in fundraising or volunteer efforts together. Be sure when you donate things that they also make some contribution to the donation pile and talk about who will use these things. Find ways to volunteer together as they are old enough (there is a list of volunteer places with kids on the http://www.our-kids.com resource list). Volunteer to help elderly neighbors by picking up a few extra groceries for them once a week with a child-delivery system. In the winter, shovel a neighbor’s walk before your own and be sure to have your child participate. Talk with your child about how this is helpful.
  • Teach children to look for small ways to be helpful to others. This might be holding doors, offering to carry things or picking things up. Little things add up to a sense of others.
  • When there are disagreements that your child is involved in or witnesses, occasionally try to go back and review for better outcomes and to see it from the other person’s view.
  • When you are reading any children’s story book, and there is a social conflict, stop and talk about the various viewpoints of each character and how people can feel differently about the same things. Discuss ways the characters could solve problems that would be kind or fair for all involved.
  • In my own family, we talk often about not creating work for other people. Meaning we clean up our table as best we can in restaurants and we put things back on the shelf where they belong if we’re not buying them at the grocery store.
  • Pet care is a nice way to introduce caring about others and being responsible to others. It’s good to discuss being gentle and loving.
  • Teach children about genuine compliments and how good it feels to get and give.
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