Children have all sorts of opportunities to socialize, meet people, and have experiences that help to shape their opinions of others. Encouraging them to remain mindful of how they perceive themselves and others can impact how they relate and the level of empathy they show.
I recently read a book entitled, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. In the book, social scientist Jamil Zaki argues that our willingness to take and give perspective influences the opinions we form about others. We often think that if we consider “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” we can gain a good sense of who they are, how they struggle, and what they think. Zaki cautioned that this is no longer of value. He shared research that showed that by drawing conclusions about someone without really sitting with them, we are no better at understanding their perspective than if we didn’t try to understand at all.
Another interesting thing to encourage our children to do is perspective-get. In this way, we actively request another person’s version of their own experience. Simply put, we let others talk. Ask lots and lots of questions and show a genuine curiosity for what others have to share. We’ll all be better off if we do this, and we’ll be more able to empathize in ways that are truly meaningful.
Research has shown that the act of empathizing with someone else is about us, and our children, sharing common perspectives based on similar experiences and feelings we’ve had ourselves. It’s about our willingness to grow and understand others because of the experiences we share. Just like the ideas we hold about ourselves—that our views and attitudes change over time—other people’s experiences do too.
Empower your children to be open to the fact that other people have a great deal more to offer than they think. Experiences that they seek and the other children they meet stand to give them ideas that can open their minds, expand their hearts, and make the friendships they keep that much more enriching.
Eric Dustman is the head of school of Montessori of Maui. Visit momi.org if you’d like to learn more.