Teaching Peace with Elyse: Developing Empathy with Young Children

"Let’s laugh at Jay," said a 5-year-old as the others united in a game they had created. It began in fun with one girl asking her classmates to laugh at her. It soon escalated, stopping just short of taunts. I paused for a nanosecond, seeing if the boy chosen to be laughed at would use his words to stop the chanting. His face expressed a myriad of feelings ranging from enjoyment at being the center of attention to feelings of embarrassment and dismay. Holding mixed feelings resulted in an inability to do anything. He seemed frozen, uncertain of what to do.

As he was unable to say "stop," I quickly stepped in, modeling the hand gesture and accompanying firm power voice the children have been taught to use. The child who began the laughing game was unable to stop with the others. She enjoyed being in the center of attention and tried to start the game up again by saying, "Laugh at me; I like it."

"Stop," I said firmly. "It’s time to make up a new game." I advised that it felt like teasing even when some of them enjoyed it. Thinking a story might illustrate this better than a discussion, I improvised using an incident that happened just that morning. Some of the 3-year-olds were afraid of a large puppet named Turtle. Because he was bigger than any of their puppets and looked differently than other turtles, the children expressed their fear through teasing him. They said he looked weird and they didn’t like him.

My attempt to create empathy through the puppet initially backfired, as the girl who started the original laughing game reclaimed the power of leadership by now laughing at Turtle. The others were only too glad to start it up again.

Undaunted, I reached into my teacher toolbox for something else. Animating Turtle’s voice, I had him tell the children how it felt to be teased. This, too, was ineffective. "You’re just a puppet!" they rallied back. "Yeah, you’re just a puppet."

Knowing that at 5 there’s a fine line between the real and the imagined, I had Turtle respond with his power voice and hand gesture. "STOP! Puppets have feelings, too. I want you to stop teasing me. I feel sad. I sit here and watch you play together. I want to be your friend, too."

The children became quiet. I could see empathy begin to grow with the changing expressions on their faces. This was an opportunity to have the children discuss whether they’d ever been teased, how they felt and what they did to stop the teasing. However, the children had an idea of their own.

"I’m going to make you a drawing," said one child. "Me too," said another. Gifting their families and each other with drawings and art is an expression of their friendship and love. I sat Turtle in his rocking chair, head turned towards the children, as if he was watching them. I sat next to him observing the focused concentration and stillness as the children drew.

"Here, Turtle, I made this for you," the laughing game innovator said, giving Turtle her drawing. As the drawings mounted on Turtle’s lap, an idea surfaced to tape them to his chair. With each drawing that was added, Turtle showed appreciation. "I’m sitting in a throne," he said, delighted. Indeed, with all the colorful drawings taped to the rocking chair, it was becoming a throne for the children’s new friend, Turtle.

In using puppets to help young children develop empathy, we encourage tolerance for differences and the unfamiliar.

From tolerance comes the opportunity to build friendship, which embraces and often celebrates differences. This is a powerful yet child-sized step towards creating more peaceful interactions.

A peaceful and happy new year for everyone.