5 Tips: How to Teach Your Child Empathy in the Age of COVID

My son’s first day back to preschool after two months of quarantine was a mix of excitement and nerves. So much hope and expectation, so many unknowns, it was a bit like pulling on an old, favourite pair of jeans only to find they don’t quite fit, then jamming them on anyway. Neo grew like weeds during the COVID-19 lockdown, but like so many other things, as we just got by, the clothes on us were “good enough.” His first day back, he ran those four blocks to school, in too-short trousers, ankles a little exposed; like my heart, carried along on the winds of my four-year-old’s pure anticipation, racing toward old joys and familiarity in the face of a world changed. ‘Would the wooden stacking blocks still be there?’ he wanted to know, desperately. ‘Which of his friends would he see again?’ I half-wondered if his butt-crack would peak when he sat criss-cross applesauce at story time. But mostly, I was just happy he was happy, and cautiously optimistic that the kids, their teachers, and all of us will stay safe, and continue to play it smart, as life and our routines kick back into gear and our New Normal unfolds.

Let's get real though: stringent social distancing at school will be difficult to stick. I’m incredibly grateful for Neo’s amazing teachers. I have faith that they are creating new routines to increase physical distance between kids and reduce spread of germs: new smelly soaps, fun hand-washing songs, more frequent toy and bathroom sanitation, snack time moved outside, etc. Still, schools are germ factories. Kids, by nature, touch everything. It's how they learn and thrive. Air high-fives are a good idea but, in the end, kids will still be kids.

‘Would the wooden stacking blocks still be there?’ he wanted to know, desperately.

So, what can we do to keep them safe and thriving? How can we help kids navigate this strange, new reality where high fives and handshakes pose a health risk (they always did) and one person's comfort level or risk tolerance may vary greatly from another's?

As of May 2020, in B.C. we have no community spread. That doesn't mean COVID is over. I've heard some people speak of the pandemic in the past tense. Meanwhile, cases among 20-somethings are rising out east and cities within driving distance of Kelowna have new community transmission.

Without consistent physical distancing and proper hygiene practices we will see a spike in new COVID-19 cases in coming weeks and months. This isn't to rain on anyone's barbecue. It is fact, based on mathematical modelling used in our province's Restart Plan. How we manage our increased social contact right now matters, and will impact the lives of many others.

Let's protect and care for one another. And what we do, our kids will do too. The good news is, kids are highly adaptable; they are just learning social cues, how to make responsible choices, and be kind and empathetic to others. We have a unique opportunity right now to give our kids a crash course in coping and caring (as we study up ourselves) and these tools will last them a lifetime.

Here are five tips to help your child cultivate resilience and empathy toward others in these uncertain times:

  1. Awareness. At 18 months old, kids read facial expressions and begin to recognize that other people have feelings different from their own. This is a precursor to empathy. Encourage your child to be aware of other people's emotions and body language. Point out when it looks like someone is wanting some extra space on the sidewalk or bike path. Move to the side and slow down or wait. Talk about how this helps to keep others safe. Empathetic kids often grow into compassionate adults. Our world needs them.
  2. Be Sensitive. Tune in to what’s going on around you. My son is intensely curious. He is asking questions all of the time. So I've gotten creative at getting him to think about and answer a lot of his own queries. It lowers my word count, so I can breathe too. Why do some people wear masks while others don't? How come there's a chain blocking off the counter at our local café? Why do some people still fist bump or hug? How come some kids aren't returning to school? You can redirect, with "Good observation" and "What do you think?" Then let their questions lead to meaningful guided reflection and conversation around who is at increased risk; how we can protect our frontline workers, the elderly, those with pre-existing health conditions; how we, as humans, all crave contact, but right now, until there's a vaccine, we must play it safe. Is touch something that your little one misses? Who in their bubble can they hug and high-five safely? Then take a breath and let those feel-good endorphins flow.
  3. Attune. Communicate with your child so you can understand how they are seeing the world. Help them put words to what they are feeling. My son didn't want to put on his face mask when we arrived at the farmer's market. "Are you feeling frustrated?" I asked, and it opened up a dialogue between us. Neo was able to express his resistance to wearing his mask, and he started to calm down. When we verbalize our emotions it helps us to tolerate them. I listened as he explained how it's harder to breathe with his mask on. So for a few minutes, we sat together in the car doing some deep breathing, first with our masks off, and then on. This helped him to relax and gave him some control over the situation, and then he was good to go.
  4. Burnout. It's real. Putting yourself in someone else's shoes takes energy and imagination. At the same time as your child is developing empathy, he is also learning to be independent and communicate his needs. Be patient and temper your expectations. Kids are supposed to be egocentric! They can't always be selfless and empathetic. Let's be gentle with ourselves too. We are all, basically, undergoing what one Psychology Today writer calls "forced empathy practice" during this pandemic: "Humans in the world have been asked to connect our personal fabrics together to weave a giant rescue net for society. … From a six-foot distance, we've been asked to tell people we've never met: 'Hey, I've got your back!' In the hardest way imaginable this coronavirus is teaching us the skill we needed the most: empathy."*
  5. Repetition. Rinse, wash, repeat. This practice of six feet is teaching us a new universal language of caring. Even when frustration arises - over putting on a mask or having to ride in the cart or wait in a lineup at the grocery store, or no free samples anymore at Costco - even doing what you don't want to do, for the sake of someone else, is still practicing empathy. We are in this for the long haul. It could be a while before we see a vaccine. And with the state of the world, right now, every kindness counts. We are right where we need to be.

* https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuroparent/202003/why-some-people-refuse-practice-social-distancing

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