The foundation of justice is empathy. Only when we can feel and understand the suffering of others will we work to change their circumstances.
Helping young children move into empathy requires a long-term commitment. It won’t happen with one conversation or activity, but with many, many, many repetitions. We can start right now with the way we handle our children’s upsets and disputes with peers.
Most preschoolers have developed the language skills they need to spin complex pretend-play scenarios, engage in deep conversations with peers and adults, and express feelings of generosity and love. At the same time, they still grab things out of the hands of their friends, scream or cry when they don’t get their way, and have no problem saying, “You’re not my best friend!” when they feel angry.
In our preschool, one way we begin the long-term project of building empathy involves replacing perfunctory apologies with acknowledgment of another child’s pain and an offer to make amends.
Saying “sorry” can be quick and meaningless, an easy out for a child who has harmed another physically or with words. Instead, we ask the child to look at the person he or she has hurt.
“Look at his face,” we say. “See how sad he feels? Hitting hurts.”
Or: “Look how sad and angry she looks. When you say unkind words, people feel so hurt.”
The next step calls for reparation, which goes beyond apologizing. We ask the child who has been harmed, “Is there anything she can do to make you feel better?”
Sometimes the child requests a hug, after which the two children usually go off and play together. If the child wants a hug but the other one refuses, we respect those boundaries: “Sylvie can’t give you a hug right now, but maybe she will later. I can give you one, though!”
If the child can’t think of anything the other child can do to repair the damage, we sometimes offer suggestions: “Maybe he can help you build your tower back up,” or “Maybe he can promise not to do that again.”
Occasionally we’ll say, “There’s nothing you can do right now to make your friend feel better, but we’ll let you know if she thinks of something.”
When your child grows older, you can have conversations about the value of sincere apologies. For now, these small, consistent, day-to-day interactions help create the underpinnings of empathy: taking another’s perspective and working to repair damage and make things better.