When we are born, empathy is not part of our skill set.
We still float in an ocean of oneness and cannot yet distinguish between “you” and “me.” We feel in union with our mother and our environment. As young children, our capacity for empathy expands somewhat, but our worldview remains largely determined by our age-appropriate, child ego-centrism. In our early years, we tend to believe everyone feels exactly the same way we do. But each time we discover a person feels different than we do, we learn that each of us are separate individuals with unique feelings. As we grow up, we are meant to develop empathy, which is the ability to understand the feelings and perspectives of others.
Empathy is a crucial skill for living together peacefully, cultivating friendships, and working in teams. Through empathy, we willingly slow down to have someone else catch up, or stop our loud drumming because someone else’s ears are hurting. We take time to hear out our classmate and try to understand what she is saying, before blurting out our opinion. With the capacity to understand the motivations, feelings, and perspectives of others, we can make better decisions as a group and reach our goals together.
We can help our children cultivate empathy.
When we say, “Look at the dog; it seems like he is hurting when you hit him,” we help our children focus on the inner feelings of others to help guide their behavior. In this way, we play an important role in helping support the development of empathy. But here is the good news: it is not all up to us. Mother nature supports children in naturally developing empathy while playing with each other. Their internal drive for role play and pretend play leads children to playfully experience many different roles, naturally growing their awareness of the internal world of another.
Children love pretending to be someone else.
They joyfully take on the roles of teacher, student, mother, father, child, storekeeper, hairdresser, doctor, baby, cat, horse, princess, king, pirate, fairy, unicorn. In short, all they “try on” what they see in their environments and hear in stories. By “playing out” different roles children naturally experience the archetypes of human life: the betrayer and the betrayed, the hater and the lover, the excluded one and the admired one, the taker and the giver, the powerful and the weak one, the leader and the follower, the enemy and the ally.
Through experiencing these different roles during play, children become familiar with the spectrum of emotions. The more they experience these nuances, the more empathic they become. However, role play only teaches empathy when each child feels safe during play at all times, and when each child knows, they can stop playing anytime they feel unsafe. This is part of our responsibility as adults caring for children.
Learning companions / teachers are needed to make sure that each child can chose her own role joyfully, and that each child’s boundaries are respected. Learning companions develop a feeling of how and when to step in, support children during a conflict, or offer play therapy materials such as the sandbox. As learning companions, we walk the line between allowing joyful play to do the teaching, and stepping in when necessary to make sure the environment is safe and conducive for optimal learning.