Thursday, October 6, 2011

Learning Empathy

Encouraging empathy in my buddies is an all day, every day event. It may sound odd to outsiders listening, but it feels natural to me. It wasn't always that way, I had to learn the methods and language. I had to adapt it to my style and practice it. Practice, practice, practice, just like my buddies do when learning. I think my buddies are better for it, though, and it makes all the days of practicing worthwhile.

Empathy is a feeling that has to be EXPERIENCED. A child who is forced to apologize or hug another child will most likely feel resentment. The victim is unlikely to be comforted by these actions. Even children can tell a genuine hug from a fake one. It's pretty much a no-win situation for all of us.

You will never see me force a child to apologize or hug another child. I believe that forcing these behaviours are counter-productive to the children developing actual empathy.

When one of my buddies hurts another, and it DOES happen, regardless of the amount of empathy they have within them, I will go over to the victim of the attack. Generally, I will kneel next to them and perhaps put my arm around their shoulders. I will not allow the other child to leave, though.

(Let's say two of my buddies, we will call them Stacey and Mary, are playing together. Suddenly, Stacey hits Mary. Mary is upset and is about to cry or hit back.)

My conversation might sound something like this:

"Mary, you look hurt! Are you ok?"

Mary will probably explain what happened.

"I don't think you liked that. You can tell Stacey you didn't like that."

Though she may try to leave, I will ensure that Stacey is there to see, hear, and acknowledge Mary's words and feelings. I may have to add to, or explain or repeat Mary's words to make sure that Stacey understands.
That might sound something like this:

"Stacey, Mary said she didn't like that. It hurt. Mary is feeling hurt."

At this point, I usually find that Mary is feeling better because she has been heard but Stacey is now upset and looking for some kind of redemption in our eyes.

I will usually ask of my buddies, "What do you think we could do that would make Mary feel better?"

9 times out of 10, Stacey will hug Mary and they will go off to play together more happily than they had been previously. It's almost as if the whole experience released all negative feelings and became an opportunity to bond.

Now, the other 1 time out of 10, Stacey might refuse to acknowledge her friend's hurt feelings. Though this is frustrating, I will still not force a fake apology or hug. (Which might make Mary feel smug, but doesn't promote empathy or good feelings.) Instead, when I see that Stacey is not acknowledging her wrong doing, I will say to Mary, "You can tell Stacey that you didn't like that and that she should not do it again." Mary, who may be feeling quite put out and angry by her friend's lack of empathy will usually state her case quite clearly. Usually, just having a chance to say her peice will satisfy Mary, but I can still ask if she would like a hug. And if she does, I will offer the hug, modelling the behaviour I would like to see. At this point, Stacey might feel left out, or recognize that this might be her last opportunity for redemption and the hug may become a group hug. If not, that's okay too. In that case, I will observe Stacey and the children around her for the next while and bring to her attention the kind things that I see them doing. I will also recognize any small acts of kindness and friendship that Stacey exhbits, to help reinforce those behaviours and help her see herself as a kind and good friend.

Another way I try to encourage empathy in my buddies is by exaggerating my own actions just a little. I want to be able to demonstrate to my buddies, the behaviour that I want to see in them. So if I accidentally bump them, or knock down a construction project, or step on a toe, I might just be a little more dramatic than necessary as I apologize and ask if a hug would make them feel better. And it always does!


Want some more ideas? See The Caring Child


  1. Wow very well thought out! I have never heard this approach taken before. I myself am guilty of the generic forced apology! Great info!!

  2. I love this! I could definitely use this post right now! I really like getting them to really think about how the other feels, reinforced by seeing us model good behavior.