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Building empathy by choosing gifts together image

Building empathy by choosing gifts together

Want to encourage your child to consider the feelings of others? Get them involved in choosing gifts.

It is a remarkable thing that God’s people are described as a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Among other things it means that we are charged with the privilege and duty of representing him to others.

We are given the task of showing people something of what he is like through our own character and through the way we behave. If we are to come anywhere close to pulling off a small fraction of the task before us, then a vital pre-requisite is that we learn to think and feel for others. We need to cultivate empathy.

Empathy in children

In developmental terms we should expect to notice that children are beginning to develop empathy in their third year. These are considered some of the skills involved in feeling and expressing empathy…

  • Understands that she is a separate individual, her own person;
  • Understands that others can have different thoughts and feelings than he has;
  • Recognizes the common feelings that most people experience—happiness, surprise, anger, disappointment, sadness, etc.;
  • Is able to look at a particular situation (such as watching a friend saying good-bye to their parent at child care) and imagine how she—and therefore her friend—might feel in this moment; and
  • Can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in that particular situation—such as offering his friend a favourite toy to comfort him.

it is amazing that empathy should begin to develop in children so young. But it does. Furthermore, if we nurture any hopes that our children might engage well with the world around them, and particularly if we are praying that they will embrace kingdom loyalties and godly concerns, then we will want to encourage them to develop empathy.  But how can we do that?

Encouraging empathy

I was interested to see one parenting website suggest that the most important thing about choosing gifts for other people was to plan ahead so that it could be done as quickly and as cleanly as possible.   .

There may be times when this is the best we can think of and all that we can manage. But it might be that gift-giving, and especially gift-choosing provides a wonderful opportunity to grow and to develop empathy. It is an opportunity that we should make the most of.

“What do you think Grandad would like?”

“What do you think we should get for your cousin Sam?”

To start with, you can expect a young child to answer with the very things they would like to be given. A little bit of encouragement, a little bit of feedback may be necessary to set their own likes and preferences to one side and to think for someone else.

You could start with something comically inappropriate – like a fairy castle for Grandad or a pair of water wings for Sam who swims like a fish. A careful hint, a providential ‘wrong turn’ (“Ooh look, we’ve ended up in the gardening section!”), or a casual comment (“I wonder what that little girl is going to buy”) may be all that it takes to get the ball rolling.

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