Want to teach our child about empathy? Have hopes for a world where people can respectfully discuss differences of opinion and care about people on the other side? That's a tall order but it can have simple beginnings.
We aren't all as fortunate as Wart in The Once and Future King. Merlin is not going to let each of us have a day as a squirrel or fish, but humans have ever so vivid imaginations.
Preschoolers love all the little creatures so a great was to start is to pick one. How about asking your child to imagine what it would be like to be a butterfly? You can do a little research together. The best research is to watch one and then imagine what it would be like to be one going from flower to flower. Hiding from rain on a tree. What if something bad happens? How would you feel if your wing got caught in a cobweb? What could you do? Would you need help?
Another day you could imagine being a squirrel. It's best to choose creatures your child can actually watch. What fun it would be to run, jump, and climb like a squirrel. Then snuggle up in a ball to rest, using your tail as a blanket.
It’s the same with people. Now what would it be like to be a Mom or a Dad? Has your child been to work with a parent? Can your child imagine taking care of others, pretending to prepare meals, bathe a doll, and sing a lullaby? Children naturally pretend to be the adults in their life – parents, friends, teachers.
Can you and your child pretend you are two friends who disagree? How can you both get a turn with the toy? Though superhero play and hero play are often seductive to children and can be empowering, those games have a clear winner and loser. Can you occasionally play a game where you and your child imagine what it is like to be someone you disagree with? You can take this from your real life experiences and it doesn’t need to be dramatic.
Your child can pretend to be Grandpa. He always loads the dishwasher from the front and we always loads from the back first. Grandpa used to sit on the floor with me, but now he doesn’t. So if we know Grandpa is having trouble with his knee your child can imagine what it would be like, “Ouch it hurts to bend my knee so it’s easier to just put a cup in the front of the dishwasher.” Getting down to the floor is out completely! Grandpa has a deep voice and tells funny jokes so your child will want to do that too.
If there’s a disagreement at preschool can your child think of a reason why José did what he did? We don’t want to make excuses for bad behavior from others, but we do want to learn to question why someone acted as they did before we assume they are just “mean”. You can ask your child, “Did José think you were the mean one?”
Empathy is a slow building process. Imagining what it is like to be something or someone else is a great place for kids and adults to start.