I recall a situation when my son was two and a half. I call it the “raspberry case”. With a tone that sounded like an invitation to reflect rather than criticism, but this is only my perspective, I said, “I noticed you finished all the raspberries and didn’t leave any for your dad. How do you think you would have felt if dad had done that?” The premise of this question was probably correct, but it was too early for my son’s brain. As a result, he started crying. To help them early on, start simple. There are different levels of perspective-taking, and more sophisticated versions may confuse very young children.
Have you ever seen your baby in a room with another, and when yours starts crying, the other starts crying, too? That is because babies do not know that someone else’s discomfort is not their own. They don’t have the ability to take the perspective of someone else yet. So, when and how can we promote perspective-taking in our children? How can we help them to learn an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how things look from points of view other than their own?
At around two to three years of age, children start to gain the understanding that each person is experiencing different things. Here are some ideas of what you can do with preschoolers who are not yet showing signs of understanding that other people have different perspectives and feelings than we do: (1) Point out the emotions of others. When another child is crying, talk to your child about how she or he feels and why. (2) Talk about your own emotions. Label your own emotions to your child throughout the day. Talk about why you feel that way. If you have negative emotions, talk about what would make you feel better. (3) Read books with your child and talk about how the characters may be feeling, why they may be feeling that way, and how you can tell. For example, is he smiling? Is he crying? Does he loathe the toy? He found his toy!
If your child is six or seven years old:
During these years, your child’s perspective-taking skills should continue to grow. She or he should develop the ability to guess what people are thinking or feeling based on their behaviours and begin to understand the motivation behind certain behaviours.
There is this creative activity that I learned years ago that is brilliant for kids of this age. Into a room of children (yours, others’, schoolchildren, etc.), bring ice skates, cross-trainers, slippers, army boots, stilettos, and so on. Invite each child to open a shoebox, step into the shoes, and then describe the person who might wear them. You could also use the props for story prompts or creative play. Alternatively, just set up a box filled with different clothes, hats, ties and scarves for the children to dress up and pretend to step into the world of another. You can do the same to help your children understand the characters of a book. Use different pairs of shoes, put each main character’s name on a sticky note, and then stick them on the toe of each shoe. I had a big surprise during this activity when I was talking about the villains in stories. It is surprising how little we can say about the bad guys. They are never shown at home with their children and family or with their friends.
If your child is eight to twelve years old:
During these years, your child begins to develop the understanding that everyone sees situations from a different perspective and that people may therefore misinterpret what’s going on. Your child also begins to understand that a person may be hiding his/her true feelings.
An easy perspective-taking activity that I have successfully used in the corporate world, but also with children, is called “Do you see what I see?” This activity involves physically putting yourself into someone else’s place so that you can see what they see from their perspective. For this perspective-taking activity, you’ll need two chairs and two children (it could also be you and your child). Both children sit in a chair, facing each other. One child (child A) says, “Tell me what you see behind me,” and the other child (child B) names as many objects as they can see. Then it is child B’s turn to ask child A to describe or name the objects that they see behind child B. Both children will likely respond with different objects because they are each seeing the room from their own unique position in the room. They are simply sharing what they see from their point of view and perspective. Next, both children switch chairs. Once seated in the opposite chair, both children can begin to see the room from the other child’s perspective and position in the room. They start to see the objects that they couldn’t previously see because they now sit in a different position and have a different point of view. Let them enjoy this “aha!” moment. And then invite them to have a conversation around it. You can bring up a recent event in this discussion or use the following questions to help children develop their perspective-taking muscles.
“Remember earlier today, you two ….? What happened? What would …. say happened? How do you feel about what happened? How do you think …. feels? What would you like to tell …? What is the best way to solve this problem so all of you are satisfied?”
Perspective-taking is the ability to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings, wants and needs. It is an essential skill for building empathy. It is not yet empathy, but it is a gateway to it. And when your child can easily grasp another’s perspective, she/he is more likely to be empathetic, anticipate the other person’s behaviour or thinking, handle conflicts peacefully, be less judgmental, value differences, speak up for those who are victimised, and act in ways that are more helpful and supportive of others.
For other essential skills, please check our beautiful child development infographics. Download them for free, post them around your house or classroom and use them as a guide. If you are a teacher looking to understand children’s perspective about learning in your classroom – download for free the Learning BarometerI have designed especially for this.
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