"That must have really hurt." "Are you upset?" "Do you want some of mine?" "I know how you feel." These are comments from 6- and 7- year-olds! Older children begin to develop empathy – the ability to understand the feelings, motives, and experiences of other people. No longer in the egocentric "Me" stage, school-age children can begin to look at the social world from a larger, more global perspective. They can imagine what another child is feeling or experiencing and relate to that child's experience through their own. Although empathic assumptions may not always be exact, the important process of acknowledging feelings has begun.
Developmentally, 6- and 7-year-olds are in the delicate process of creating individuated selves within the larger world. Their expression of feelings and opinions shows a stronger sense of self and others. They may come to school talking about an event that happened on the bus or something they heard in the news - relating to the experiences of others and demonstrating a developing sense of justice and rights for all. In a sense, as children realize their separateness, they begin to understand the collective experience as well.
So children develop a broader perspective. Instead of simply involving toys, sharing also includes feelings, understandings, and experiences. And children's range of emotions – from happiness, to sorrow, to downright outrage applies to personal experiences as well as to more complex issues such as fear and violence.
What You Can Do
Help foster children's growth as they are beginning to understand life and emotions from other perspectives. Try these suggestions:
- Stop, look, and listen. When a problem arises between children, encourage them to stop for a minute, look at the situation, and listen to each other's side of the story. This empowers children to utilize their perspectives in assessing a situation.
- Model empathy. For instance, when you notice a child is uncomfortable in a situation, quietly ask about his feelings. Being careful not to label feelings that are not there, you might say, "Jon, it seems like you're sad. Is that right? Are you afraid that you won't get a turn?" After the two of you have determined the child's feelings and the possible cause, let that child know he's not alone. "I know what you mean. I've felt afraid that I'll miss out on something important, too. Once when I..." This demonstrates an understanding of and respect for children's feelings as well as their desires.
- Use literature and/or current event stories that engage children's minds and hearts. Encourage children to express what they think the people in the story or event are feeling. Invite them to share what they would do, or hope would happen, in each situation.
- Start a Sharing and Caring Community Project. Together, figure out some things you can do for others. Your group might like to donate used toys to needy children or make cookies to send to a local shelter. Pitch in cleaning up a park, or plant bulbs to enhance the beauty of a particular spot. Involve children in activities that inspire them to share their caring with others.