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Teaching Kids Empathy: On the Playground

Teaching our children to have empathy is an important and never ending job and can be especially hard to teach our kids to empathize with those that are mean to them.  Elise, a fellow “Penny of Time” Adventuring Mom, shared the following experience that she had with her five year old son, Wayne, as he learned to empathize with a classmate.


There is a boy in Wayne’s kindergarten class who can be disruptive. Sometimes he hits, spits, kicks, and has tantrums, and, on top of it all, some of the kids in his class make fun of him for having a “funny shaped head.” I have never met this boy; any information I have about him is what Wayne has told me. This has opened up the opportunity for a lot of discussion over these first few weeks of school (What do you do when someone behaves in a way that you don’t like? How do you treat someone who doesn’t treat you kindly? etc.).

As we discussed ways to help this boy feel more comfortable in class, my son experienced a really sweet, tearful moment in which he completely empathized with this boy. He began to understand how devastating it could be when peers mock a person.
I explained to him that people who struggle with their behavior are sometimes people who need a friend the very most out of everyone. And that is the thought that birthed our goal.  Wayne decided he would start by saying something kind to this boy. Off he went to school the next morning, a clear sense of purpose on his little shoulders. It is a lot to ask of a five-year-old:  to empathize with someone, to think of someone else’s needs before his own, to understand that doing something nice for someone means you may be nervous and that is OK. But, someone has to do it. Someone needs to take responsibility. We can’t always look around and wait for somebody else to step up. And my son is just beginning to learn how to process all of that.
The story ends well.  Wayne came home from school and excitedly reported his success. “Hey, Roger, I like your shirt! Would you like to play with me?”  my son said. We rehearsed this compliment so Wayne could feel prepared. The boy in his class responded favorably, and Wayne learned a great lesson about the power of words for good.

As you well know, pennies of time are truly all it takes to lift a person’s spirits. It can begin with a well-placed simple greeting and a sincere compliment, and it can become a moment of great distinction for someone who needed an emotional hand.

Thank you, Elise!