Teaching Our Children Empathy and Skills for Life
Young preschool age children are social little beings who are usually very interested in other children and are quick to notice and practice social norms such as sitting together, sharing a space or waiting for a turn. They’re becoming more able to control themselves emotionally, and they are more able to verbalise their feelings, developing a variety of options beyond hitting out and screaming when frustrated, angry or sad. This is the perfect time to teach them good social habits that will support them throughout childhood and into the future.
If you start talking with your child about their friendships and relationships when they are toddlers, you’ll give them valuable emotional tools — and they’ll be more open to talking with you about any issues as they get older.
It’s crucial that children develop empathy, not just so that they’re nice people but because reading the social cues of others is the only way to function in a complicated social world of school, further studies, work and family life. Research has found that those children who take the time to watch new social situations or peer groups at play would pick up the rules of the group and would join in with appropriate social behaviour and were more readily accepted by the group, compared to those who didn’t and perhaps charged in or disrupted what was happening.
The more children have opportunities to work through issues themselves, the more they learn to do so. But you may well need to intervene at times. Children do need adults to help to learn successful interpersonal conflict resolution, and this may be through physical intervention or verbal prompts and reminders.
Keep enforcing the “no-hitting- no-matter-what” rule. Under no circumstances is it appropriate to hit out in anger. This is behaviour you may see in a young child who lacks the ability to verbalise their feelings however by preschool they should have developed better self -control. You may need to help your child express their anger and express their needs without attacking others. Children need to be taught that if another child provokes/annoys them or enters their space in a threatening manner and they can’t diffuse the situation, they need to seek help from an adult.
Be aware that preschool children are exploring how power works. So it is their mission to get what they want, and they are still learning how to do that during social interactions without hurting others. That’s why it’s common to hear four year olds threaten “You can’t come to my birthday party if you don’t do it my way.” Be aware that children will follow the example you set of how to use power, so if you’re using punishing techniques that involve ‘threats’ they will almost certainly try to exert power over others during their social interactions. Don’t hesitate to step in
when necessary to help children learn to negotiate with each other and to see another person’s point of view.
Children need to know there are consequences for behaviours that are not appropriate. However they need to be verbalised from an early age and as the children mature the consequences can become an action that is predictable and meaningful to their age. Removal from a social situation such as a party or supermarket, a loss of time on a device, an earlier bed time. A consequence should not involve degrading language and is often more successful if less words are used. Talk later when the situation has finished and everybody is calm and rational. A child is not going to listen when they are feeling hurt or angry.
Bossiness is often a challenge with preschoolers. All children both want to get their own way and still have other children play with them. It is a complex mind field of trial and error. Try asking questions: “Is it more important for you to play the game your way or to have Catherine play with you?” When another child is bossy, your child may need suggestions from you about tactful ways to negotiate with their friends. Help them with scripts: “I really want to play with you, Jasmine, but we’ve been playing dress-up all morning, and I don’t feel like it anymore. What can we do that we both want to do?” These language skills start at an early age and a good place to start is during meal times by asking for items, discussing what the family would like to do after the meal and hearing everybody’s ideas first. Words such as “maybe, sometimes and next time” are great to introduce. Or “I’ll think about it” allows you time to respond and the child has time to learn patience and the skill of waiting.
Teach taking turns instead of sharing. “Let’s share everyone” it sounds wonderful and warm and fluffy however in reality you wouldn’t jump up from a restaurant table and just give your place away because someone else walked in and wanted it. We should not expect children to do the same during their play either. Learning to express a desire for a turn and then to be able to wait should be our ultimate goal. When one child has a toy, they should be able to keep using it for a manageable amount of time taking into account the group size. If another child wants the toy, suggest that they ask if they’ll give it to them when they’re finished with it. This accomplishes a number of important goals for both sides. First, when they do give the toy to the other child, they experience that wonderful feeling of generosity, which increases the likelihood that they’ll seek that feeling again. This is very different than when they are forced to share, which increases the hoarding or stashing of toys. Secondly, the other child learns to wait patiently. Yes, that’s very hard. But usually once they cry about how hard it is to wait, they don’t even care about the toy. Usually, such desperation isn’t really about the toy. Finally, instead of you constantly modeling grabbing, by making kids give up the toy, they learn to work it out with each other. It is important for adults to use this technique with children too. Learning to wait to have a turn at something, sharing out a special treat amongst the family by giving to others first or talking about waiting whilst lining up at the supermarket are all good starting points.
Empathy is a learnt behaviour and it needs to be taught and reinforced. Children need to be given the language around empathy in order to understand it and feel it. They also need to experience adults showing and using empathy with them. Describing situations of play to a child at the park, “oh look at him, he fell over that must have hurt”, talking about how you feel “ouch that really hurt my toe when the book fell on it”, and describing how it must feel “empathy” about their anger, pain and disappointment, “I can see you are really angry about having to wait for a turn” all help to build a child’s language and emotional bank up.
If you feel you would like some further tips on how to implement and use some of these suggestions or you are looking for parenting advice that is easily accessible to kiwi families then try some of these links.