August 20, 2009
One of the abilities that a child should develop in their early elementary years is that of perspective taking. That phrase simply means the ability to “see through someone else's eyes.” So when two children are in conflict, a parent or teacher can ask, “How do you think that Sarah felt when you took the toy out of her hand?” If a child can't see what it would be like to have someone snatch a toy away from him, it is unlikely that he's going to stop grabbing things from others any time soon.
Understanding others who are similar to us
Although perspective taking is a skill that should develop early in a person's life, it is a skill that must be nurtured, and can be absent or very limited even in adults. Not surprisingly, it is easiest for us to take the perspective of someone who is very similar to us. The boy who grabs toys can see what it would be like to have a toy snatched, because he too plays with toys and is upset when others take them.
Understanding those who are different
It is more difficult to take the perspective of someone who is different from us in significant ways. In my wife's clinical training as a pediatrician, she interacts with families that are very different from ours. Just recently she said to me, “This child is going to have such a hard life.” As a black boy growing up without a father present, and now with a foster parent since his mother died of AIDS, his world is hard. What my wife was doing in perspective taking is not only critical for sympathizing with this child, but for becoming more aware of the way she sees the world. She is increasingly aware that this boy is going to see and experience the world in ways that are entirely different from our children.
This is precisely why parenting matter so much! Asking questions that encourage a child to see from another perspective is essential. It is essential for our own perspective to ask: How does my child perceive what is going on? When she sees or hears this, what does she experience? These sorts of questions will lead us to better understand our children, and to help them better understand others.