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See if I Care

Lead your child in the shift from insensitive to empathetic. Expert mechanchim offer us the principles using four common scenarios

Meet our experts

Rabbi Yaakov Bender, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, Far Rockaway, is a world-renowned mechanech and orator. He’s the author of Chinuch with Heart, Chinuch with Chessed, and The Chinuch Haggadah.

Rabbi Yitzchok Levenspil MSCC, NCC, has experience working with children, adolescents, and adults both within the chinuch system and in clinical settings. He maintains a private practice as a psychotherapist in the Jerusalem area and sees clients both in person and remotely. He’s also a rebbi in Yeshivas Toras Moshe and hosts various workshops.

Mrs. Bassheva Rosen BA, MEd (SEBD) runs a private practice in Manchester, UK, addressing social, emotional, and behavior difficulties in education. She offers assessment, intervention, and training for schools, families, and individuals in the area of social communication, and takes particular interest in working with individuals with high-functioning autism-spectrum conditions.

Mrs. Dassi Weiner is the elementary school principal of Yeshivas Toras Emes, LA. She created and runs the revolutionary “Raise the Bar” program, which educates and inculcates the key values of respect and inclusion in her students.

Mrs. Simi Yellen has been positively transforming homes through her parenting classes and private consultations for almost 20 years. Her series, entitled “Raise the Bar Parenting,” enables parents to raise respectful, responsible, and cooperative children through curtailing arguing and chutzpah.

My five-year-old son was very excited when I came to pick him up from preschool. He came rushing out to show me the craft project he’d made that day. On his way, though, he accidentally knocked over another kid’s project — which broke beyond repair.

The other child burst into tears. My child’s reaction really bothered me. He looked back a bit blankly, then shrugged and walked away, holding his own project out proudly for me to see.

I’m disturbed he didn’t show some regret for breaking the other child’s project and making him cry. How can I help him make amends appropriately and feel empathy for what happened to his friend?

Mrs. Simi Yellen

Firstly, don’t be too worried! Empathy skills don’t come naturally to every child. When it doesn’t come naturally, it’s up to the parent to teach it, to help the child’s empathy develop.

How is this done?

Some children have a hard time understand the concept of “other.” Other people’s feelings and emotions simply don’t exist in their world. Parent need to introduce this idea and help the child develop this understanding. Tapping into a child’s imagination is helpful in this regard; really recreating the experience for them, putting them in the other person’s position.

In the above example, when they got home, after the child has eaten something and got settled, the mother could say something like, “The project you made today was so well done! I love the colors you chose! It looks like you put a lot of time into making it. (Pause) How would you have felt if someone knocked it over and ruined it?”

With a child this age, literally taking out a different “pair of shoes” and saying, “Now let’s pretend we’re putting on Yaakov’s shoes. How do you think Yaakov feels about his ruined project? Do you think he’d feel better if we called him to say I’m sorry or made him a card?”

Here’s another example: I work in a school where one class was preparing for a costume party. The class was small, only ten students, and the day before the party, one of the girls wasn’t feeling well. Her mother called me to discuss how we could make her a part of the party “long-distance,” but instead, we decided to push off the party so she’d be able to fully participate. It was a matter of a few days, and I knew the rest of the class would be disappointed. So I pre-empted the inevitable response with the following discussion.

I explained to the class that the party was canceled because their friend wasn’t able to come to school that day. I used the opportunity to discuss feelings: How would you feel if you were the one sick at home today? Wouldn’t you want the rest of the class to be understanding and to postpone the fun until you were able to make it?

There wasn’t a single complaint from the class, despite the fact they didn’t know about the party’s postponement until that very morning!

Mrs. Bassheva Rosen

Between the ages of three and four, a typically developing child will begin to show an emerging understanding of others’ emotions and start to demonstrate different levels of empathy. However, much of the groundwork is laid during attachments formed in infancy.

A baby whose physical and emotional needs are responded to promptly and effectively will begin to learn how to soothe himself. Just as talking to an infant helps him learn language, soothing him helps him learn to comfort himself and, eventually, to comfort others. Empathy, the skill the mother in the above scenario is expecting from her child, emerges with consistent and caring relationships over several years.

While many young children are sensitive to the feelings of others, they don’t actually experience a feeling of empathy. Uri might cry when his mother leaves, and Gavi, who is a similar age, may begin to feel sad. Uri’s anxiety has triggered a similar feeling in Gavi. Although he’s been affected by Uri’s tears, he’s not yet aware of why he’s upset and has no urge to comfort his friend.

But young children do learn how to demonstrate empathy by watching and imitating the adults who care for them. When Gavi’s little sister falls and hurts her hand, he will come close and watch as Mommy comforts her. In time, he will use his mother’s actions as his own default behavior for comforting others.

Empathetic behavior needs to be repeatedly demonstrated by parents and teachers and encouraged in children so that it becomes part of their natural behavior.

The parent in the above scenario should use the opportunity as a teachable moment, rather than simply expecting the child to behave in the ideal manner. The mother should describe how the other child is feeling: “Oh, look! Yaakov is feeling sad because his project broke.” This will help her child become more aware of the feelings of the people around him. The mother can then gently guide the child to behave in an empathetic manner: “Let’s see what we can do to help Yaakov feel better. What do you think?”

By problem-solving together, the child is given the support to enhance his newly developing empathic communication and lay the foundation for healthy interpersonal relationships as he grows up.

My family enjoys playing board games together, and my kids often invite friends to join us. While most of us are mainly focused for the fun and camaraderie, I have one son who is extremely competitive. He takes playing games to an extreme, competing fiercely and focusing intently on the goal: winning. When he does win, which is often, he expresses his triumph vocally. I’m concerned that he doesn’t realize his friends or siblings might be upset. How can I help him become a more empathetic winner, and react differently even in the excitement of winning?


Rabbi Bender

This is essentially a middos question, and it’s very difficult to change a middah. Reb Yisroel Salanter says it is easier to learn the entire Shas than to change one middah.

Playing to win is perfectly fine. I never understood when mechanchim would say, “It’s not important who wins, it’s important to enjoy yourself.” Let me tell you a secret; if you don’t play to win, the game is a disaster.

Yet, there’s another piece, called sportsmanship. It’s our job to teach our children to never, ever to make fun of other children, gloat, show off, or rejoice at another’s defeat. Play to win and go for it, but only with middos tovos.

Rabbi Levenspil

There’s a core principle behind the question of how to teach children empathy. It comes from the pasuk, “Vayigdal Moshe… vaya’ar b’sivlosom.” The very first act attributed to Moshe Rabbeinu once he had “grown up” is this — going out and seeing the pain of his brothers.

The transition of child to adult is marked by the ability to be empathetic, to identify with the pain of other people. The first thing to understand as parents is that, on some level, every child experiences difficulty with feeling empathy — it’s part of being a child! To enable true growth, we have to help them develop this ability.

Let’s look at the case of the competitive child as an educational opportunity, a chance to teach him how to feel and demonstrate empathy toward his peers.

The first step is to help him understand that there’s another perspective. Once he realizes that the other person has his own distinct feelings, you can help him identify what those feelings are. In this scenario, it shouldn’t be too difficult to explain the feelings of the “loser”— if he takes winning so seriously, chances are he takes losing just as seriously.

I’d suggest the following points to help him remember those feelings in the heat of the moment. Firstly, model empathic behaviour. When you play games with the child, model what “good winning” should look like. Show him how you’d like him to behave: “Wow, that was fun, you put up a good fight! You’ll see, I won’t always win, maybe next time it will be you — you’re great at this game. Thanks for playing with me!” Your behavior will have a big effect on how he reacts next time he’s playing against a friend.

The next step would be having an open discussion with the child before he starts to play. Explain the situation as a dilemma you have. “Shimmy, here’s the thing. On one hand, it’s so fun playing games with you because you’re great at board games and you make it a challenge! But on the other hand, it’s a little hard for the other kids. They like to play against a ‘pro’ like you, but just as much as it’s fun for you to win, it’s not so fun for them to lose. So we’re not sure what to do. Right, Shimmy, it’s fun to win the game? Right it’s not so fun to lose?”

Now that he understands the problem in terms he understands, you can brainstorm together for solutions. “So what can we do to make it easier for your friends or your siblings when you win the game? Because it’s okay to win, we just want to make sure it’s not so hard for them to lose. Do you have any ideas?”

If he isn’t forthcoming, you can help him along: “Maybe it would be easier if you didn’t make a big announcement to the whole family when you win? Maybe if you thank them for the game and compliment how well they played, or tell them that next time it’s likely that they’ll win, too, that would make them feel better?”

My daughter is a charismatic and popular personality, a real leader. She’s the oldest in our family and enjoys creating games and activities for her younger siblings. With her friends, too, she’s the one who by nature takes the lead. With her energy, fun, and a never-ending flow of great ideas, it’s generally a win-win situation for everyone.

The problem is that I keep hearing complaints that she’s coming across as the “class queen.” She doesn’t bully or hurt anyone, but when the class plans something, or plays games recess time, or is told to choose partners for an activity, whatever my daughter suggests is what goes — even if other classmates want differently.

Recently, the class was planning a party for their teacher and some girls were very hurt because every detail went according to my daughter’s plan — without having the opportunity to anyone else to be heard. When I spoke to her about it, she explained that while she’s happy to listen to other ideas, most of the class clamors for her to make a final decision, and it’s easiest for her to just take the lead. I’m wondering if there’s anything I can encourage her to do to show more understanding and let other girls also have an opportunity to bring their talents and ideas to the table.

Mrs. Dassi Weiner

The key here is authenticity.

Let’s start with what I wouldn’t advise. Simply telling your daughter to ask her classmates, “What do you think?” before going ahead with her own plans is unlikely to work — it could be insincere, and that will come across.

The real goal is to help her actually value other people’s opinions. It’s not about whether or not she’s viewed as a class queen — it’s about valuing her classmates, recognizing they have greatness, and letting the respect come naturally. When her classmates feel that respect, it won’t matter as much whose idea is actually used.

When Hashem created Adam, He said “Naaseh adam” in the plural, “Let us make man.” He wanted to teach us the importance of saying, “Let’s do this together,” being inclusive, and giving respect to others.

Explain to your daughter the concept of eizehu chacham, halomed mikol adam — a wise person learns from everyone. If you’re not open to learning from others, you won’t be as smart as someone who gains from the strength and wisdom of other people and different perspectives.

When she understands that, she’ll realize that it’s actually better for everyone to collaborate. It’s not about making them think that she’s nice — it’s about a collection of ideas being stronger than any one person’s individual plan.

Every classmate has value, everyone is created in the image of Hashem, each girl is uniquely skilled, and deserves to be heard.

I have a niece, Tzippy, with severe disabilities. She’s confined to a wheelchair, is fed by tube, and can’t communicate clearly. It’s often difficult to include her when we’re planning family events, but we do our best to make accommodations so she can enjoy and feel part of things.

We have an exciting simchah coming up, my oldest sister’s first chasunah. My sister-in-law, Tzippy’s mother, asked if my teenage daughters and their cousins could help Tzippy feel included in the fun. I asked my two girls to take turns with a couple of other cousins to push Tzippy’s wheelchair, sit with her, include her in the conversations, and make sure she’s not left on the sidelines.

I know that it means giving up some of their fun — but I was surprised and disappointed that they complained at having to do this. It’s only an hour or so for each of them. I would have hoped they could empathize with their cousin who can’t join in anything on her own. How can I help them understand this and react with more positivity and willingness to this chesed opportunity?

Mrs. Simi Yellen

This is a great question! The first thing I’d ask is where the mother obtained this information from. Is it from her daughter, or are the other mothers getting involved and asking her to try do something about it?

It’s not so simple for mothers to intervene and try to change the leader-follower dynamics in a classroom, because they’re a natural outcome of personality. For a mother to insist, “It’s my daughter’s turn to decide now,” simply doesn’t work — more often than not, it actually backfires.

Instead, the mother in this scenario should encourage her daughter to be open to the ideas of other girls, without forcing it.

How can she do this? By explaining to her daughter how important it is that people feel heard. Explain to her that being a leader comes with responsibility and part of that responsibility is to include others and not hurt them or shut them out.

In many cases, there’s eventually a strong enough feeling from the class that they’d like other voices to be heard, and they’ll naturally come together and create change. In a situation where the daughter is actually holding the class in a chokehold — and this is coming from a reliable non-biased source, like a teacher, or multiple mothers (not just the one who pines for her daughter to be more of a leader than she is) — then I’d advise the mother to address this head-on with her daughter, because letting it continue would be nurturing bad middos.

Her daughter should be taught that a class isn’t run like a dictatorship. Something’s wrong if only one person is deciding everything and there’s no room for dissension. Ask her: “How would you feel if the tables were turned and all your ideas weren’t given any credence?”

Again, explain that being a leader isn’t just a natural role that suits her; it also comes with responsibility.

Rabbi Bender

Teenagers should understand what it means to help a handicapped child. We have many handicapped children in our yeshivah. I always say, the biggest chesed is not for the handicapped child, but rather for the other students who learn how to take care of them.

I doubt a child in our yeshivah wouldn’t run to take a chance to sit with their cousin… it’s a school culture, and it should be internalized in the same way in all schools.

Who hasn’t been at a wedding of a Chai Lifeline volunteer where the chassan dances with a former camper? That’s why we should encourage our children to do this kind of work in the summer. It’s is an ongoing process of inculcation, start now. Perhaps a half hour for each cousin would be plenty of time to cover the evening. Mazel tov!

Mrs. Bassheva Rosen

The question here is not really whether the teenage girls have empathy. If they’re typically developing teenagers, they’ll have varying degrees of empathy, but will struggle to act on this feeling and prioritize their cousin over their own social interactions. A teen’s strongest drive is usually their social drive, and it will take real effort to override this.

In addition, the mother isn’t saying that the teenagers refuse to look after Tzippy, but that they’re complaining about it prior to the event. This is completely normal, and they should be listened to and validated. At the same time, the mother can insist that this is the way the children of Hashem behave and although it’s hard, she expects them to each take a short turn keeping their cousin company.

If the mother dismisses her daughters’ emotional struggle to do the right thing, she’s subtly teaching them that others’ feelings do not matter and can be ignored, thus discouraging the very attribute she is seeking to develop.

It’s also important to consider the reason teenagers typically become self-absorbed during their adolescent years. They’re going through a process of self-discovery and what can seem like a reluctance to connect may actually be a sign of having little confidence, on an emotional level, to engage in the required task.

The mother in this scenario is viewing the situation through the eyes of a mature adult, and she’s expecting her teenage daughters to participate in a difficult task in the way she would. Looking after an individual with significant disabilities can be daunting for some and will require considerable confidence and maturity to carry it out in a satisfactory manner.

In addition, the mother needs to reflect on her own interaction with her niece. How often does she keep her niece company? Does she spend time with her at social events? These girls will learn from their mother, not only how important it is to care for their cousin, but also how it should be done. This will increase their own confidence in managing something which they may initially find daunting.

The mother should make time to keep Tzippy company herself, demonstrating how important it is to her, as well as showing the feelings of loyalty, connection, and satisfaction that can result from relationships that require more effort.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 719)

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