Teaching Empathy to Children – Teach. Play. Love. Episode 35

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We’re all born hard-wired for empathy — but we have to work at it. How can you help your child build this lifelong skill? In this episode, early education experts Rachel Robertson and Claire Goss offer a run-down on what empathy is and why it’s important. Plus, hear how to set appropriate expectations for your child’s age group and learn proactive, simple ways to encourage empathy in everyday life.


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Read the full transcript

Rachel: Hi, Claire.

Claire: Hi, Rachel.

Rachel: Nice to see you again on yet another video chat.

Claire: I know, I wish I could be in the same place as you. We're getting closer though. I feel like things are changing, and our vaccines are happening, and things are opening up. So, maybe someday we can record in the same studio.

Rachel: Yeah. Wouldn't that be great? We're craving that social interaction just like kids are, which is what we're going to talk about today. And it's something I really look forward to. I didn't realize how important that was as much as I know about social development, just being in a room with other people, how valuable that is.

Claire: Yeah. We've been home a lot in the last year-plus, and our kids have been home a lot too. You know, it's not like we haven't seen people. It's just we've seen a lot of two-dimensional people.

Rachel: Yeah. We've seen the same people. People we love, but we're happy to see some other people.

Claire: Yeah. And I think, you know, I talk to parents every week, I talk to Bright Horizons parents, and I'm getting a lot of questions about socialization. Kids seem lonely. My kids seem kind of sad. I think parents are wondering what's going to happen now that things are opening up a little bit. How does that shake out with kids and the lost social time that they've had?

Rachel: Yep. It's a good question. I'm hearing about it a lot too, whether I'm reading an article or hearing just people talking on social media or when I am out because I'm going out a little bit now. I live in California, so I've been able to go out aside and go on walks and things and be around people, even if I'm not interacting with people, and it is a hot topic, and it's different, everything feels different. And when you don't know what's going to happen, especially as a parent, you don't know what's next, you don't know what's going to happen, you don't feel like you have a lot of control over it, it's just stressful.

Claire: Yeah, exactly. And I think, again, as the weather is getting better all over the country, there are going to be more opportunities for socializing. And I know that...actually someone in our department, one of our colleagues, was telling me that he took his child to an outdoor gathering. You know, masks on, adults were all vaccinated, it was a very...all those health and safety guidelines being followed, and he was very surprised that his toddler acted kind of shy and was a little maybe overwhelmed by this larger gathering of folks. And that idea of lost social time came up again. And it's important as parents that we remember that it hasn't been completely lost, right?

There's still been socializing happening. It's just been happening in this virtual environment. But these young kids that we're talking about today, the 0 to 8 crowd, they have still been doing it. The socializing has been happening, just not maybe in that three-dimensional way. One thing is Zoom calls happening, lots of online family visits, right?

Rachel: Hopefully, right? Of course, you're interacting socially with the people in your house too. Even though it's parents or family members or siblings or the pets, those children are interacting. There's give and take, back and forth, accommodating each other, reading cues, playful together. That's all social interactions. Even the interactions they might be having with you throughout the day as an adult where you feel stressed between work and talking to your child, that's all social interaction. So, it's not an absence. It's different. And, you know, kids, their brains are really malleable and growing like crazy.

Claire: Yeah.

Rachel: So, there's time, or the door isn't closing on them. So, the point you're making about they have been socializing and that interactive media is good. FaceTime or Zoom calls, anything, that's good for children, even babies can gain from that interaction and all the socialization at home, but there's still things to talk about and things that you can do to support them.

Claire: Yeah. I think, in some ways, watching my kids now after like 14 months of the primary in-person social interaction being with siblings is in some ways there's been a vast increase in negotiation skills but maybe some decreases in patience because we can speak more freely and openly to our siblings than we do to peers sometimes. So, there's been some gains in some areas that I was not expecting lots of negotiations happening. And that's part of social development. So, maybe we can just talk a little bit about that part of development and why is social interaction so important for healthy brain development across the board for kids?

Rachel: Yeah. So, I mean, we talk about this all the time at Bright Horizons about whole child development, meaning every aspect of a child's abilities, capacities should be developed at the same time because one influences the other. So, social development, like you just said, it's not just the ability to make friends, although that is a major part of social development, to learn how to enter into a situation, to learn how to give in sometimes or to read your friend's facial expressions and know how to adjust your own behavior and what it means to be a friend. Those are all really important things. What you said about your kids, I just think, you know, siblings are like that with each other. And kids without siblings aren't getting some of that hard pushback because parents are a little bit more likely to let kids win at a game than their siblings or things like that.

So, that's a good. It's good to learn how to lose and how to be with other people. And that helps cognitive development. That helps literacy development, that physical development, it's all intertwined. So, it's so important. And, you know, we can look at ourselves, right? In all the social skills we're using, we've had to adapt quite a bit how to interact with each other. If you can sit through a meeting as an adult and not say everything that comes to your mind, you have good social skills going on, and we want those for children too. And they're learning them throughout life, but they're applicable in all parts of life.

Claire: I think that's such a great example of social skills on display as, like, a functioning adult part of society and has a job. Those basic skills really are learned in toddlerhood, right? You've got a toddler who just has an idea, and they want to say something, and their cognitive development and their language development says, "Just blurt it out. Just do it." Those executive functioning skills are not there yet. Those regulation skills aren't there yet. Like you said, a lot of different parts of development happening at the same time. It's brain development, language development, and it's social development. So, your brain has to learn to regulate and recognize what's going on, but it is also based on social cues, right? So, I'm in meetings all the time as an adult where I have a great idea about something, and I wish I could just blurt it out, but because of the work I did as a toddler and a preschooler and work that my parents did with me and my teachers and my peers and my two brothers who were brutal sometimes with their social feedback, I know I can't just blurt it out. So, it has felt like a year of loss in some ways, but in other ways, they're still learning these things.

You know, my second grader has been on his virtual calls all year until recently he went back, but there was plenty of opportunity on those Google Meets and those Zoom calls with his whole class and his teacher where he was watching all the faces. He got some social feedback from his teacher the few times he had his toys on the screen. You know, it's like, oh, she could see the look on his face, "Oh, this is not the appropriate time to be doing that." And that was all great for him. You know, he had to learn those lessons.

Rachel: What you're saying makes me think of what we've missed about school and childcare in general that we maybe...many parents didn't identify as important before but now are really missing is the social interaction that's happening in classrooms but also in the hallways if you're talking about a school or just in the group time in a childcare center or in playtime, imaginary play, that's such rich social interaction happening there. Schedules, children negotiating schedules, children following a routine, children figuring out how to wait for something, how to share, all of those things happen in those group care settings with children. And they are hard to do at home. One piece of advice we can share right away with families too is when you're thinking, and this happens all the time, and I've done it, you're doing it, although I'm sure you're fantastic at it, as well as children are coming in the room and interrupting you, and you're just sort of at your limit, and you just respond versus teaching them my door's closed or I have this sign on my door and giving them some cues.

The teachers will teach them that because teachers know that's part of social development. They're teaching them how to regulate. They're teaching them when it's the appropriate time for something, how to work together to get from one place to the next place, how to transition effectively. So, those things can be taught at home, and also they help you as a parent if you put some of those prompts in place about how to interrupt, when it's time, what the schedule looks like for the day, when it's time that they can spend some time with you throughout the day versus it feeling like constant interruptions. Don't feel bad about doing those things. Those are good social development skills, and they give you a break when your kids start to learn those things, how to follow those cues. Talk about what an emergency is and when they can interrupt you. That's a good thing to learn too. So, we're getting good stuff out of those things, jobs around the house, contributing. That's a great social skill, knowing how to contribute to a group. That feels good too as much as they complain about jobs around the house.

Yeah. But it's good. It's good. And those are the things that teachers do. Those are the things that happen in a group setting, in a preschool, and we're missing those things. That's what parents are missing. They thought they were gonna miss the academics, and I know that many parents do, but they very much miss this socialization, social development opportunities.

Claire: Yeah, absolutely. So, when I talk to parents, I do have parents saying, "Okay, things are starting to reopen, but, you know, I still have this kid who's feeling kind of lonely and kind of sad about how isolating the last year has been." So, I want to talk about some real strategies we can give parents in face of that. I have a child, I have three kids, and one of them is definitely feeling this harder than the other two. So, I know one thing we can talk about is my own social health. Like, how am I modeling for him, right?

Rachel: That's such an important tip we give all the time, is to take care of yourself. The most important thing you can do to help your kids is be a healthy role model for them. And that doesn't mean not having a bad day. I'm thinking back to a time in my kid's life where their dad was in the military, and he was gone, and they were really, really struggling. It was when they were younger, and the older one just started crying. And then, as we know happens, the younger one started crying, and then they were just on the floor, and I was having a hard time with it. We were just all struggling. And I, in that moment, just laid down with them and cried too. We all laid on the floor together and cried, and we just were in the moment together.

And then I said, "How are we going to fix this? What should we do?" And my younger one at the time was obsessed with this restaurant. So off we went, and that was what they needed. I don't know if I consciously knew it at the time, but I just reflecting back can see that I was modeling for them. It's okay to be sad and feel sad and be sad about it, and we move on. We problem-solve, and we move on, and we go on to something else. And so that modeling for your children, taking care of yourself, being healthy, feeling your best that you can after what feels like 20 years of a pandemic is the most important thing you can do. Telling them you're worried about them, being anxious about their social development, and expressing that to them is not going to help them.

So, making sure that you're in a good place and able to, again, model, whether you need to do mindfulness, whether you express your concerns in a healthy way and show them how to manage that, or you have a lot of optimism, hopefully, all three of those things, but that is truly the most important thing you can do. So, start there. We're going to give you some other tips, but start there.

Claire: Yeah. I really like that tip. And I think it's important, like you said, not to be dwelling and labeling their sadness and loneliness by pointing it out and making them feel self-conscious about it. But instead, you can help them put words to those feelings like you did with your daughters where you said, "Okay, we're all feeling sad. Let's just all cry. This is just happening now." Right? And now what can we do next to move on to the next feeling? Because feelings come and feelings go. I do that all the time. And, you know, recently, I had the chance to go spectate one of my son's sporting events. And I had felt like I hadn't been out of the house in a long time. And we had a little bit of a scheduling conflict, and I knew my kids were listening. And so I said to my husband, I said, "Someone has to stay here and deal with the other two kids." One of us gets to go to baseball, and it needs to be me. I need to prioritize getting out of the house today because I haven't seen any other people in our community in two weeks now. I've been home too much." And I felt like that was good. I was able to model for my kids. I'm identifying with this as something that I need to do for myself to make myself feel better.

Rachel: I like that, it needs to be me. That's something we should all be able to say when it is right. You know, sometimes a preschooler would say it needs to be me for every situation. But that's good. That's good for them to learn that sometimes it needs to be somebody else and sometimes it needs to them, and that's, yeah...

Claire: Yeah. It needs to be me.

Rachel: ...that's perfect.

Claire: So, when parents ask me what else we can be doing, right? So modeling good emotional and social health for your children is basically foundation. That's where you start. What can we do to make up for the lack of socializing for the past year? My go-to answer, and this is the answer to a lot of things for young kids. One of my best answers is play, right? Play is just a great way to ease kids back into socializing if they're feeling nervous, if they're feeling confused about things opening up again. I mean, you talk about play all the time, Rachel.

Rachel: I mean, play, I'm dedicated to helping people understand the sophistication and importance of play. It is not just an extra. Study after study that when children don't have enough play, everything is impeded in terms of development and wellness. Play is how they work things out, even. So, we're going to see kids playing pandemic. In the centers, we see kids playing getting vaccines. We see kids playing health checks. They work through their life. And we know that, like you were saying, some kids are sad and lonely, and some kids are nervous and confused, and I'm nervous and confused. So how could the kids not feel some of it? They feel it slightly different reasons. They're not dealing with the amount of mental load we are because we can think of the 500 different things to think about, and they've got a couple of those things to deal with, but they're feeling it. They're definitely feeling it more than they would at other times.

So, play is just such a simple, natural human need and a way for children to interact with each other. So, not only do they work things out, so they're going to play things related to the pandemic, and adults have to make decisions when they're watching that play about, "Is this dangerous or is it just making me uncomfortable because it's a tough topic and I'm shocked that the kids are playing this out? Or is it really not good for them?" Because we stop a lot of that kind of play. Like, when kids play good people, bad people. Sometimes that feels stressful. It's a good place for them to learn and act those things out. So, play, yes. Play, play can have some structure, could be a board game, it can be with you involved, and you're guiding it and asking questions. Try to stay away from things that are, like, somebody gets out or closed-ended because then someone's not getting socialization because they're sitting on the sidelines.

Open-ended process, interactive kinds of things are the most important. Art is such an important thing to be doing because you really want to have that creative expression that is so good for all of us during tough stress times. And nature, being outside in nature, we can't express that enough. So, whether you're in there with them and kind of guiding it and letting them take the lead but interjecting or if you're just giving them some free time for their imaginations to run wild, we have a whole podcast on if a child says I'm bored to you, that's a good thing. So, there's a reason they like cardboard boxes and pots and pans because their imagination can go for it. So, all of that part is really good.

Claire: Yeah. I wonder if there'll be any research. This would be to be a great dissertation for someone to figure out if there was an increase in imaginary friends during the pandemic. Because I know some kids, only one of my three children did this but had a very clear mental picture of an imaginary friend. They would practice socializing with the imaginary friend. It was fascinating, right? They would take turns. My child would pour the imaginary friend some pretend milk into a pretend cup. And I saw them taking turns. I saw them having, like a pretend conversation. All this back and forth is all social development. And so I have been wondering if some of our younger community members have been increasing the imaginary play.

Rachel: Big reveal. I had an imaginary friend. I don't remember, but my parents tell me about it all the time because we would call her and invite her to dinner apparently and set the table for her. But I also know that the data tells us that people with imaginary friends tend to be very creative. So, I like it, I'm latch-on, it's a little confirmation bias for me that I'm fine with that, but there is good data that says it's a good thing. It's not a bad thing not to have an imaginary friend, but it's a good thing and... Again, it's like when children give up persona to a stuffed animal or a doll or their pets that they're interacting with their pets, that's some social development as well. It is necessary to have human social development, but it is also good to have some other kinds of social development, and kids work that out. Many, many, many stuffed animals have been to a tea party or a picnic lunch. There's a lot of that. And I'm sure you're right. More and more of that has happened over the last year.

And I hope that it's happening, I know I just mentioned nature, but I hope that it's happening outside because there is a lot of healing properties to being outside in nature. So, when you're getting kids outside, and we can go outside now, there are ways to ease into social interactions even if you're not ready or they're not ready to be side by side with other children. So, you could do something like games like Simon Says that doesn't require everybody to be right next to each other. You can do Simon Says 6 feet apart. You can do a scavenger hunt or leave clues for each other and then do them at different times. So you've done something for someone else, and you're interacting with them and responding to them, but you're not right next to them doing it. You can do that with, like, relay races. Set something up and people take turns going through the [inaudible 00:20:32]. You can do hopscotch on one side of the street and then trade. Is there things that you can do to start seeing each other and start some interactions that are outside that don't require, again, you to be touching each other or within 3 to 6 feet, whatever your comfort level is?

Claire: When my two older were, I think, I want to say either 4 and 2 years old or 5 and 3 years old, we were at the playground, and we didn't know any of the children who were there. We just stopped by on the way home from errands. And I think I started a game of Red Light, Green Light on the open area of the playground, and it was like mods to a flame. I'm telling you the toddlers and preschoolers came running over. And pretty soon I had a whole group of kids playing together. Talk about, well, there's a lot going on with games like Simon Says and Red Light, Green Light, right? It's great for the executive functioning skills, cognitive development, language development, following directions, impulse control. All these wonderful things are going on, but my kids were also making friends, right? "What's your name?" "Wow, you're really good at jumping." "Oh, I think she said thread light." You know, lots of back and forth and laughing and... Oh, it was so good.

Rachel: Yeah. That's great. Teachers and early educators, they seem to have a knack sometimes for kids being drawn to them. That happens to me sometimes when I'm out in public. They know, the babies know what I do, what my work is. But what you're saying actually makes me think of another thing worth talking about a bit, is how to help children get back into social interactions. And we're going to have more regression, meaning children's skills are...they may have developed, have gone backwards a bit, or they haven't developed them yet and they would have if they had been in a group setting, and we're going to have a lot of separation anxiety where kids are reentering something where they wouldn't have been experiencing that at this point in their life.

So, I want to talk about both of those things. And one of the things you just said as a key to helping with that is helping your children learn how to enter play. That is a big skill. Asking someone's name, telling them your name, not telling them exactly what to do the first second you meet them, how to negotiate and learn a little bit about somebody, those are really good skills. And giving your children lots of moments to practice that and not have to stay in that play situation or in that situation just introducing themselves, meeting other people, maybe it can be online, maybe it can be in public, that's a good step. That's a good practice for children to have.

Claire: Yeah. And I know that parents are concerned, and this might be your child's natural temperament, to be more withdrawn in social situations, to be a little more, like, clingy or hesitant at a playground or if you go to a cookout or something with other neighborhood kids, and you as the parent, you might be thinking...because of your personality and your temperament, you might be thinking, "Go play, go. Like, you are finally out of the house. There's all these children your age." And you find your child physically attached to you. That's not actually a terrible thing. Right, Rachel? We talk a lot about attachment.

Rachel: No matter what situation we're in, we have to look at our individual child's personalities. And it is a parenting challenge when they're very different than yours. So, right now they might be a little bit more clingy or they might just be a child who is like that. And that's okay. We use the word scaffolding a lot as educators, meaning taking a child from the skill set they currently have to the next level of their skill, not pushing them so far out that all they are is uncomfortable, but just that next step. And when we're scaffolding them, we want to help them with that to get them to the next place. Analogy would be when a child's learning to walk, you don't just say, "Hey, you're on your own." You reach out your hand to help them, right? So, that hand is a scaffold. You don't think you're going to be doing that forever. You're certain you're going to be letting go at some point, but you know that they need that in that moment. And that's what we can be doing with kids with social skills right now too, is helping them enter that play, going along with them.

Claire: That's right.

Rachel: And then easing out of it yourself. Maybe you ease out just for five minutes, and then they come right back to you. That's okay. You're making some progress. And then the next time you keep working on it and you keep doing it. But you think about who they are, and you assess who they are, then what they need versus what you need. Like you said, oh, you might be someone who's like, "I'm good. I could stay at home for five more years. I'm fine. And I'm really liking this. I haven't had to go to a party or turn down an invitation for a year. That's fine with me." But your children are really craving social interactions. So, you would need to do what's right for them versus having them do what's right for you.

Claire: Oh, yeah. It's a careful dance. I know I have shared a lot about my kids in today's podcast, but I have a very clear goodness of fit mismatch temperament-wise with one of my kids. And it is a point of frustration for me sometimes. I'm a very social person. I'm an extrovert. I like to chat as we all can tell. And it's difficult for me when he won't just run out and be part of the fun, part of the party. It takes him a while to warm up. But I want to assure parents out there, even the most hesitant customer will eventually when schools reopen and we can start being outdoors more, they will rediscover friends. They're going to rediscover the joy of being with their teachers. All those things will happen. It might just take your child a little bit longer than others, and there's nothing wrong.

You don't have to say, "I'm so worried about you that you won't go join the game at the playground." Your child doesn't need any of that stress or anxiety. It's just, "Okay, I see you're feeling a little hesitant to go over there. Would you like me to go over with you and stand with you for a while, or do you want to just stand here and watch the game for a little while? Maybe we can talk about what you see happening with the game. Whose turn do you think it's going to be next?" You can have a conversation and warm them up a little bit, and it's going to be a transition.

Rachel: Well, those are all good thoughts too, is you're not giving up on the idea of getting a child into the social situation, but you're giving them choices and options. So you're not saying, "Okay, let's go home." You're saying here are the ways where I as a parent know this is going to be good for you, but let me give you some options so you feel you have some control. We're all like that, children included. You feel like you have some control. You can make a choice here that works for you. So I'm going to help you get there. And you're part of this. You're a capable part of your own development, as we believe that strongly at Bright Horizons, that children are capable participants in their own learning and development.

And that's a really respectful way to do it, is to give them some options that will work for them. And when you're coping with something like regression, where children's skills are going backwards a little bit, or you're coping with something like separation anxiety, those are hard things as a parent, for sure. There's no dancing around that. And there are opportunities to teach social development. So, it's not reinforcing to them that, "Yeah, you should be worried. I'm worried. Look at my face." It's helping them through the moment with tools, lifelong social skills that can help them. So, think of those moments. And, again, I get it. It's hard, and who needs one more thing to deal with this year? We're just all kind of burnt. But with that said, these are an opportunity that you can take advantage of that will help them long-term, and you don't have to think of that as a burden. And kids go through this anyway. It's not just because of the pandemic.

So, it will be during this time because of the pandemic, but it's something they need help with anyway. So there's so many things that are just going to be built in, an opportunity as getting outside, playing, modeling yourself, whether it's feeling that moment together or it is showing some optimistic behavior and thinking ahead or mindfulness, all of these things will help get your children to just right where they need to be. Don't forget the last thought, they have so much brain development happening in these first years. The door's not closed. They are able to learn and grow, and they will rapidly catch up once they're back in these social situations and in cognitive and academic learning as well.

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