Ever watched two toddlers play “together”? If you have, you have probably seen a child come and basically grab another child’s toy without asking. What happens next is rarely pretty! The child who took the toy needs to learn more about sharing, but that same child also lacked empathy.
We don’t realize it, but empathy is a skill that must be taught. Your children will eventually pick up some empathy training from watching you (If you are consistently empathetic.). To raise children who are the Christians that defend and serve others while effectively sharing their faith though, they need to be empathetic more than the average person. That amount of skill requires some intentional teaching.
There is a fun game you can play with young children to help develop these skills. All you need are things you may already have around the house. First print or draw simple faces expressing emotions. For young children, you want to stick to the basics – happy, sad, mad, excited, scared, loved and possibly confused.
Then grab a muffin tin (or I found this plastic dish at the dollar store) and bean bags/coins or go outside and draw chalk circles and grab a ball/rocks. Place a face in each portion of a muffin tin (you can use each face more than once) or in each chalk circle. Have your child toss the bean bag or ball. When it lands or bounces on a particular face you can ask your child one or more of the following questions:
- What is this “person” feeling? Very small children or children with special needs may have trouble connecting facial expressions with emotions. Being able to pick up on subtle and not-so-subtle facial clues and naming the emotions a person might be feeling is an important step in developing empathy. (If this is a struggle, try to find photos of actual faces expressing emotions.)
- What might have made this “person” feel this way? (To make the game more difficult, players cannot repeat a reason that has already been given!) Young children may not always make the connection that another child is sad because they took his/her toy away without asking permission. For very young children you can give choices. (“Was the person sad because she got a present or because someone took her toy without asking?”) Making the connection between things that are said or done and the emotions they may cause in others is a huge component in empathy. It is the part that hopefully will cause your kids to think carefully before saying or doing something that will hurt someone (for example).
- How can I show love/kindness (mine and God’s) to this “person”? Helping your children begin to realize they can be who God wants them to be in part by how they react to the emotions of others is a huge step in their faith development. It also helps them begin to understand the importance of serving others while sharing their faith. For very young children, you may once again need to give options – one appropriate and one not so much. Don’t forget, it’s also important to teach your kids how to share in the happiness and excitement of others, too. (Romans 12:15)
Have fun with it. You can adjust the difficulty level for the age and maturity levels of the players. Taking the time to play this game is a great way to help your kids learn how to be more empathetic and show God’s love to others. It’s an important Christian Life Skill that can also help mold their hearts.