At week #!$? of pandemic life, my proverbial parenting well has runneth dry. My toolkit is dull as can be. What other metaphor can I malign? You get it. I know you do.
So…I’ve sought out webinars I can participate in after tuck-in time. Podcasts I can listen to while the car’s brakes are being fixed. And racial justice training for educators that I can do while in sweatpants. The NYT Parenting’s latest series on Play was cathartic to read. Thank goodness the experts are out there, just a Zoom or click away.
But then you have to act on all that good advice…
On a recent desperate deep dive, I googled: “How to make a socially distant stoop sale”. It is not really a thing.
You see, I was looking for some activity that my 8-year-old could be quasi-self sufficient at, one that would create its own momentum (i.e. take a long time) and that would make him feel good after. I wanted to trade in the “I’m-so-bored!”. Ideally it could be replaced with the “helper’s high”, a term I learned from Dr. Michelle Borba, author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All About Me World. While her book was a revelation when I read it several years ago, during this covid-summmer I’ve grown to appreciate the wisdom of it even more.
Why Empathy is Essential
Kindness is like a magic elixir. There is an Empathy Advantage. Practicing it can vastly improve the quality of our life and our health 1. Supporting kids to be empathetic and have tools like emotion regulation can support positive life outcomes. These are even better predictors of future success than IQ or any test score could be. Our brain even rewards us when we do kind things 2. Empathy activities are also ones that can take up a good portion of our day and therefore banish the boredom!
However, empathy isn’t something that our kids will just stumble into. It needs to be modeled by us, practiced and praised.
“Name it to tame it”
This is a favorite phase in our household. It was coined by Dr. Dan Seigel, a renowned psychiatrist and author. In order to prevent emotions from overwhelming, the first step is to identify them. As we look to build empathy in kids, helping them process their own feelings is a crucial first step.
The best way to foster empathy is to see it modeled. Literature is one of the strongest means by which we can step outside our own experience and have compassion for the journeys of others.
- Watch a librarian, Paula Zamora-Gonzalez, speak about this and make awesome suggestions for books for middle grade level.
- Get my recommendations for books that help process feelings and support social emotional learning.
- Then, turn the books into games. Here’s how.
Play Emotion I Spy
Helping kids name and identify feelings is a powerful gateway into feeling for others. I got this fabulous game from Dr. Aliza Pressman of Raising Good Humans. The idea is that you simply sit on a park bench (or at an outdoor dining establishment!) and observe people’s emotions.
Similar to “I Spy”, you observe and then name the feelings that they see on other people. The other person will try to guess at who the person is “spying”. Maybe a toddler is having a meltdown (“I spy frustration”) or a woman is feeding the pigeons (“I spy kindness”). However it goes, you can spot and name the emotions. Don’t be afraid to use vocabulary that is sophisticated. This will help your child process their own feelings and also strengthens their empathetic muscles.
Play Games that Support Emotional Literacy
I’m all about play as a way into this work. Here are some of my favorite games to support emotional literacy. You don’t need any fancy props for this kind of transformation. Use what you have, and make what you want!
- Emotion Charades. Pull emotions out of hat and act them out!
- Emotion Freeze Dance. Using exciting soundtracks that tie in with feelings,
- Emotion Sculpture. Using combos of characters and feelings, sculpt each other into statue-like representations.
Learn all about those games here.
As a theater educator, empathy is something that has always been more than just a buzzword to me. The very notion of inhabiting a character fully – understanding life from their eyes, from their point of view, is intrinsic to what actors do.
Those first days of rehearsals are always so exciting, because I watch kids shift their perspective, and get to see life through their character’s eyes.
Little ones are doing this all the time – and their adventures are inevitably heroic. They jump into Spiderman/Elsa/Paw Patrol/(insert relevant hero here!) bodies to save the day. As kids get older, the playing gets more sophisticated, using the lens of the theater helps connect kids to their more primal selves.
One of the exercises we do in class is A Day in the Life. We move in the body of the character and think about their simple routines. This slight shift from our world view to their world view is the beginning of understanding another person’s life and given circumstances.
This work doesn’t have to be relegated to the classroom. You can play a version of “A Day in the Life” around the dinner table just as easily as you can in the theater.
First, pick a favorite character from a book or show.
Then, speak in the first person as you answer the following prompts – or choose your own:
- Describe your morning routine.
- Share a greatest wish dream.
- What is a secret you have?
- What was your childhood like?
- Who is your best friend?
- What is your favorite thing to do?
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”
– Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
My dad bakes cakes for his acting students on the last day of their classes. His chicken soup is famous among his friends – if they are ever sick they get a canister. As a kid I’d watch him meticulously mail care packages to his mom in Florida, and when I went off to college, I became the lucky recipient. On garbage day, after the trucks would go by, I’d watch my him race to the neighbors’ driveways to bring their cans in for them. He still does it, I’m just not there to see it….
Kids are always watching – but he wasn’t doing it for me.
“It makes me feel good.” He would say, when I asked him why he would go through all the effort.
I’m sure that witnessing his consistent and habitual altruism was a boon to my personhood.
And now it is my turn, as a parent to lead the way.
That said, in the midst of the pandemic, I’m not too keen on going to the post office to mail care packages – and I don’t have neighbors with garbage cans. So, what are some ways in this #covidsummer that I can act on kindness and create an awesome example for my kid? What are projects that he can get inspired by…and take the lead on his own?
Quick Ideas To Get A Helper’s High
Here’s some ideas that can be relatively hands-off (for ages 7+) and are a fun endorphin-inspiring way to pass the time!
- Compose an original song (for a favorite babysitter’s birthday!).
- Write letters (to seniors).
- Research organizations that you want to donate to or start your own local fundraiser/clothing or food drive.
- Make a trailer on iMovie (about your teacher and schoolmates).
- Use Paperless Post to write notes (to friends you miss)
- Find a cause you care about and sign petitions/write letters to politicians.
- Make breakfast (for your parents!)
- Find a few new chores you can do to pitch in around the house.
Practice (as they now say) makes…progress. Create a routine out of acts of kindness and reinforce how it feels good to make others feel good. These activities are sweet to do as a family, and also help to structure the day with positive endorphins.
Reinforce acts of kindness
- Make your own encouragement jar to promote positive language.
- At dinner or bedtime remember an act of kindness you witnessed (naming things is powerful!).
- Write just-because notes – no birthday or graduation required. Simply share your love of others with them, maybe include a picture, or a little voice memo. Send by Paperless Post if you are feeling fancy too!
- Make “Happy Brainstorm Book” and come up with ideas that will spread joy to others. You can get specific for your family based on your neighborhood, charity that matters to you, or civic justice issues that resonate. That said, no idea is too small – and it is often the little simple acts that our kids can really get behind. Pick something each week from the book to do.
- Make a gratitude journal by jotting down 3 things you are grateful for each day.
Look to the Kindness Leaders
This is an extraordinary moment for activism. I wanted to learn about ways that other kids were using kindness to transform their communities. The truth is, that young people are the ones in this moment who are impassioned and emblazoned leaders. You simply have to look at the stunning work of Zero Hour, Teens Take Charge, and National Children’s Campaign to see our youth’s extraordinary ability to spark change.
The specific intersectionality of Kindness and Activism is best seen at Riley’s Way. The mission of this non-profit is to empower young leaders to use kindness and empathy to create meaningful connections and positive change. Head to their “Call for Kindness” page where you’ll see the 2020 Fellows and their brilliant projects. These are teens who are acting on empathy in a powerful way. They are creating non-profits to feed the homeless, providing women in NYC with hygiene products, and promoting diversity in the arts. With my son, we looked through these amazing projects and got inspired about what we could do in our community….beyond just a stoop sale!
I’d love to hear your ideas for empathy-activities. Let me know what you have done or plan to do!