- The Activity
- How to Set up & play the LEGO Listening Game (with downloadable PDF instructions)
The subject of teaching children empathy is popular among parents today, and for good reason.
A recent study showed that responsiveness (or lack thereof) to others’ distress as early as age 2-3 is a strong predictor of later social success or anti-social behavior. In fact, a lack of empathy predicted later behavioral problems better than the presence of defiance or inattentiveness at an early age. A similar study demonstrated that that “Callous-Unemotional” behavior at 3 predicted behavioral problems in the first grade, at age 6.
A co-author of the latter study, Luke Hyde, says that empathy can, in fact, be nurtured. However, just as early callousness establishes a likelihood of later problems, empathy-enhancing activities have the most chance of success early on.
It’s easy to see why teaching empathy has become a hot topic. Society is built upon social interaction. Even the most brilliant ideas need a polished communicator in order to reach the mainstream. The integral nature of these skills is reflected in our early development of empathic understanding. By the age of 3, most children show signs of recognition of emotion in others. This ability to perceive and respond to others’ emotions will greatly impact their success in life. This post discusses how to cultivate that capacity.
In order to best approach teaching empathy, we must have a clear picture of what it is. Brene Brown’s excellent RSA Animated Short video The Power of Empathy defines empathy using Theresa Wiseman’s four qualities of empathy:
- Perspective taking
- Staying out of judgment
- Recognizing emotion in others
- Communicating that recognition
So how can we foster this feeling-with behavior and thinking? It’s important to understand the powerful correlation between communication abilities and empathy. It has been demonstrated repeatedly that reading literary fiction correlates with increased empathy. These studies have shown that those who read such fiction experience a markedly increased ability to understand the thoughts and emotions of others. Such abstract precursors to advanced empathic abilities don’t translate well to children, who are building foundations for those later growth experiences. We have to look toward an approach that occurs within a social exploratory setting. This holds with a naturalistic approach to learning, where the learning environment matches the learner’s current cognitive stage.
The foundational relationship between communication and empathy starts much sooner than you might think. Infant pointing, possibly the very first expression of communication, has been shown to be an act in seeking shared experience. One study concluded that infants would desist pointing behaviors with any adults who did not do all of these: notice the pointing, look at the thing being pointed at, and demonstrate appreciation or understanding. If the adults did do those things, the infant would show signs of delight and continue attempting to communicate with that adult. So our very first purposeful attempts at communication are driven largely by a desire for empathic experience—to understand or be understood.
Any attempt at teaching kids empathy should bear in mind this important relationship between language and social connectedness. Increasing linguistic and communication abilities will invariably increase empathic behavior.
Empathy games, particularly listening games, are a classic activity for fostering these skills. Below we introduce an easy-to-set-up LEGO listening game, followed by some further reading and tools for teaching empathy.
The LEGO Listening Game
|Image from the Stories & Children blog|
- LEGO or DUPLO blocks
- 2 LEGO or DUPLO building plates
- A divider so players can’t see each other’s boards
- Set up the players across from each other, with the divider in between
- Give each player a set of identical blocks
- Choose who will be instructor for the first game
- This player’s job is to place their blocks any way they wish, giving detailed instructions on what they’re doing at every step
- Model empathic behaviors: talk about and show how you’re feeling, and inquire/communicate about what others are feeling.
- Counter negativity with positivity: when you hear your child expressing negative observations about another, offer them understanding thoughts about that person or point out that person’s good qualities.
- Tell stories of kindness: Cultural anthropologists have shown the integral role of storytelling in the formation of healthy people and societies. Stories of good deeds will often do more than abstract reminders.
- Do something selfless together: Volunteer, or help out a friend or family member in need. Show excitement about it. Then do something just for fun afterward, like going to the park or playing a game.
Further Reading & Tools
Parent Management Training
Video: Brene Brown on Empathy
The Empathy Toy
Teaching Kids Empathy
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