3 Ways to Take Empathy Seriously Through Play

We all want to instill values like gratitude, empathy or honesty in our kids. But we're all making one glaring mistake: Serious voice, somber face, preachy. Soon our child has tuned out. Or has no idea what we're talking about. Sound familiar? 

As a teacher and parent I know play and humor works - to connect, teach and model - as an additional tool in your parenting tool belt. Empathy is great to teach playfully because often we want to force solemn apologies or believe we can hasten the skills required for true empathy, such as emotional regulation or perspective-taking. Instead of defaulting to serious every time, try these 3 playful ideas for a less humorless - and more effective - you.

1. Bring emotions onto the scene (preschoolers)

Start with non-emotionally laden situations. If your child is in meltdown or crisis mode it is not the time to experiment with play. Find an opportunity when you are driving cars around a road or making a nest for stuffed animals. Pretend to be one of the characters (car, stuffed animal, spoon) and give it a full emotional life. Have the character react to events with sadness, surprise, fear. Maybe your car has a 'breakdown' and is crying uncontrollably, that is until she gets to tell another car about it and slowly feels better because she was listened to. This type of play might feel difficult if we aren't 'naturally' theatrical. But if you think of it as practice for the real-life moments, it helps you set aside your hesitation or self-consciousness. Playing dramatically feels worth the challenge because the more you practice, the more comfortable you and your child will feel connected in the true, more challenging emotional moments.  

2. Play with your Face (all ages)

It's as simple as starting the game across the dinner table or while waiting in line at the grocery store. Just make a weird face. Your child may do it back or may be embarrassed or may not engage. But at least one time you'll be successful because your face is just too funny not to provoke laughter. Humans have these cool things called mirror neurons, which means we're hard-wired to mimic each other. Copying other people's facial expressions is important to developing empathy, because when we are empathizing emotionally our nonverbal communication (facial expression, body language) is as important as our words. 

3. Read Playfully (all ages)

Reading fiction brings us into the world of the characters, where we naturally take on the viewpoint of another. Where the Wild Things Are immerses us in Max's imaginary world and helps us consider his shifting desire to be far from home, and then back home again to reconnect. And it's easy to be playful with reading...use funny voices for the characters, or occasionally 'mess up' the words, or make up a new story together only based on the pictures. Or you can just think of reading as playful in and of itself because it's pleasurable. 

Play is a vehicle for any value you want to teach, even the most weighty. You give your child (and you) permission to learn and 'mess up' from within a flexible, forgiving and joyful context. And because play is a child's natural habitat, entering their world helps us empathize and better understand them.

Clinical psychologist Lawrence Kutner suggests that adult modeling is the strongest influence on a child's development of empathy. Being present, kind, allowing space for strong emotions is a starting point. A serious and important starting point. Kudos to you for striving for that! 

Keren Gudeman

Minneapolis, Minnesota