OPINION: Barbie-play for teaching Empathy

Empathy is the ability to say, “How does that person feel?” and later, “If I say what I am thinking, how will it make my friend feel?” and even later, “How can I convey what I am thinking in a way that will not seem ignorant or engender defensiveness and anger, but instead move our conversation forward?”

We, as a society, should want our children to be empathetic because it makes them better people. This article in Time Magazine talks about how teaching your kids to be empathetic teaches them not to be a bully – but it also includes much more (read it).

A child is ready to begin training in empathy as soon as they have an ability to go beyond subjective thinking. For my daughter I knew she was ready as soon as she could answer questions about familial relationships like, “Who is my mother’s granddaugher?” and “Who is my sister?” because it shows she understands that “Mom”  and “Sister” like all names for relatives are relative (ha) terms.  It’s her first understanding that how you see reality depends on “where” you are.

One way I teach empathy is by modeling. I show her how to treat others in my treatment of her. When Leah hurts herself there is the most human knee-jerk reaction wherein I want to say, “Well that’s what you get for standing on a chair.” or “Didn’t I tell you not to do that?” I read once that a lecture should only come after an expression of empathy. In other words it is important to say to your child, “I am so sorry you are hurt. I am so sorry you are in pain. Where does it hurt? Oh that looks like it hurts alot.” Only after they start to calm down is it time to say, “Were you standing on the chair?”

Again, I want her to develop her skill at empathy so that she can be more sensitive to the perspectives of others and learn to anticipate how her actions might affect others. How can I do this? Especially if I want to move beyond the basic modeling exercise wherein I am sensitive to her needs?

You know where this is going…

…I can use barbies!!

Opportunities for developing empathy are all around us, even if we don’t have time to take advantage of all of them. For example, it’s not really practical to pause our shopping activities at K-Mart to point out a person in a wheelchair and say “How do you think life is different for people in wheelchairs?”

I worked for a man who was a quadriplegic when I was twenty years old. What if I want to teach her how it might feel to be a person in a wheelchair who often gets ignored? Or treated like a child?

But we can use Becky as her bavatarbie, and then will begin to practice imagining what Becky sees, thinks and feels.

In some circumstances the lesson is that Becky feels pretty much the same way as any other person, able-bodied or not. But in some circumstances, Becky feels differently, because she is treated differently. In any play session, I can focus on how Becky is different or how Becky is not so different. I can convey these messages using dialog from other characters. I can decide which scenario to use based on what I think Leah needs more of that day or week.

How does it feel to be a Muslim in a hijab?

Again, in many ways a person in a hijab will feel just like any other person. They will respond just like any other person. But they will be faced with certain reactions of others and if I model those behaviors, Leah can tell me how she thinks that might make our Fulla feel.  I can then encourage her to share Fulla’s feelings with another doll because that too is an important skill.

Leah is skinny. Me? Not so much. She once said “Look mom, that lady is fat like you,” within earshot of a woman in the grocery store. We try to teach her not to gossip and/or talk behind people’s backs. How can I tell her to say it quietly? That’s not where we want to go with our teachings. Instead we want her to learn to say things “sensitively.” I told her, “Even though momma thinks it’s funny to call herself fat, that doesn’t mean all people are comfortable being called fat.” And so on.

Given my self-deprecating humor, how do I teach her to be sensitve toward others in the use of the word “fat”?  I’m going to use my new Mimi Bobeck as an overweight teen of course.

Of course I will tame Mimi’s hair somehow and do a repaint on the makeup. The doll is much shorter than the 11.5 inch standard for Mattel Adult females and that will make her a perfect overweight teen character.

When Leah uses any of these dolls as her bavatarbies, she will be required to imagine what they see, think and feel. And that is the very definition of empathy.

The diversity of your barbies will dictate the diversity of empathetic training you are able to expose your barbeges to so be agressive in your development of a diverse set of dolls.

Spend some time thinking about the challenges of your particular life. Do you live in place where there are few Asians? If so you may need to buy more Asian dolls. We lived in Bermuda which was predominately populated by black people. Then we moved a city outside of Boston and Leah’s school had a ton of Indians and Chinese. Now we are back in Colorado where there are lots of mixed race (black and white) people, Ethiopians and Muslims. Our needs were different in all three places.

Not sure you care about developing your child’s empathy skills? Haven’t given it much thought?

For more on empathy and the importance of developing it in children, again I implore you to read that Time article I link to above. Also there are books available on the topic.

UPDATE (October of 2011): My five year-old daughter is making me proud with her empathy skills already. When I ask her how she is, she replies and then says, “How are you?” I continue to be surprised by this because I have never been asked that by a five-year old before. Also, when I recently coughed on the phone she said, “Are you feeling okay?” – in both these instances it might have been a learned response, but she appeared to be truly interested in my well-being and health. This is just the beginning, I feel, of her blossoming into a caring, empathetic person.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Danielle says:

    This is wonderful. I have two daughters and I love how you play AND educate Leah at the same time. But yeah, my girls are not allowed to play with Mommy’s dolls! The eldest is only two, so there is time for her to get her own collection together…

    1. That is very funny!! At five years Leah is finally developing the confidence to lead the stories. There is so much growth possible. Your girls will be able to play with each other. I envy that.

  2. Lola says:

    I started rerooting Mimi last night. Her head is rock hard and impossible to remove so I just cut a slit in her scalp to remove all the old hair. Started rerooting with the tension method with some ‘donor hair’ from a bratz doll. Those things are awful but they sure do have a lot of hair!

    1. Lola –
      I just got my Mimi earlier this week. I am pretty excited. She’s so cute. I have to take off her makeup. I’m pretty terrified of doing a repaint. Now that you said she’s hard to re-root I am going to have re-think changing her hair.

      Thanks to you I’ve been able to start building out my plus-sized corps. I got the thicker That’s So Raven. Still trying to get my hands on those Turnblad ladies! SO Expensive!!

  3. Elle says:

    I love your blog, by the way, even though I am childfree. I am posting this odd-1st comment because – I have to know, did you live in Quincy??!! 🙂

    I grew up near there and went to college in that city. It was nice.

    1. Quincy? I’ve never lived in a city named Quincy. I’m not sure I’ve even heard of a city named Quincy. I’m glad you like my blog. i’ll check out yours!

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