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building empathy

Playing and Learning: Imaginative games that teach social and emotional skills

When kids play, they learn.  And playing just for the sheer pleasure of it is fantastic.  But at times, you may want to find games that teach lessons as well. 

Here are some games you can play with your children to teach them social and emotional skills.

What would you do if . . . 

This is a game where parents present hypothetical, age-appropriate situations that ask kids to consider how they might deal with difficult situations they face.  For young kids you might ask whether it’s ever OK to lie.  For a school-age child, you might say, “If you saw someone being bullied in the lunch room, and there were no adults around, what would you do?”  Questions like these can be interesting to children and help develop their moral and ethical sensibility.

  1. Role-play

    Switch roles with your child.  You be your child, and let her be you.  Mutual empathy can go through the roof when we simply see things through the eyes of another person.  Yes, I said mutual empathy.  It’s never bad for a parent to walk a mile (or even a few steps) in the shoes of her kids.

    Trust fall

    This classic youth-group game lets you emphasize the point that you’ll always be there for your child.  Have her face away from you and fall backwards with her eyes closed, believing that you’ll catch her.  Then talk (briefly) about what it means to really trust someone.

    Expectation challenge

    You can raise some interesting questions by complicating the normal rules  of pretend play.  For instance, if you’re the super-villain being chased by your child, the hero, you might fall down and pretend to have sprained your ankle.  Your child must then consider whether and how to help someone, even if that person is the bad guy.

    Why was that cashier rude?

    When someone has been less than polite, play the “What caused that?” game.  Simply asking the question can begin to create empathy, since the answers could range from “Maybe her mom never taught her to be polite” to “I wonder if something bad happened to one of her kids.”


    In this variation on “Hide and Seek,” one person hides and the rest of the group tries to find him.  As each subsequent person finds the hider, that person squeezes into the hiding place.  Teamwork and cooperation are necessary to succeed.


    Another “Hide and Seek” spinoff that requires people to work together.  In this case, the seeker searches for the hiders, and when each person is found, she joins with the seeker to find the other hiders.  With each subsequent “find,” the amoeba grows.

    Show me what it looks like when you feel...

    Ask your the child to act out different emotions, showing what feelings look like on our face and body.  This can create an emotional vocabulary and also develop more self-awareness.

    Guess how I’m feeling

    This is a twist on the previous game.  Here you act out a feeling and have your child guess your emotion.  Again, empathy and emotional intelligence are the goals here. 


Remember this one?  Have the whole group sit in a circle, and pass along a message from one person to the next.  Depending on the size of the group, you might want to go around twice.  It can be hilarious to see how much the message changes as it’s passed from one person to the next.  Use this as an opportunity to talk about the importance of communication and really listening.


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My Daughter Wants to Go to Modeling Camp!

I recently learned of an increasingly popular summer activity for teenage girls: modeling camp.  As I understand it, parents of teens and even tweens shell out around $1000 to have their daughters spend five days learning to hold their shoulders back when they walk, turn with elegance, and flawlessly shape their eyebrows. 

If you’ve read much of what I've written in the past, you know that I believe that one of the best things we can do for our kids as they grow older is to feed their passion.  Sports, music, academics, dance, or whatever pulls them.  Self-esteem and confidence come from mastery, so giving kids a chance to do what they love and achieve success in those activities can be an important way for them to believe in themselves. 

Fashion and modeling may be a passion for your daughter.  If that’s the case, you might be feeling that you’re in a bit of a parenting dilemma. On one hand you want to feed that passion. On the other hand, you’re probably worrying about some pretty legitimate concerns, like these: 

I don’t mind my daughter competing, but I hate to see the competition focus on superficial issues like looks and clothes. 

We want our kids to learn to hold their own when they have to go up against others in their life.  But usually, that means developing a skill like in athletics or music, or working extra hard for a math competition.  Competing over who can look the prettiest isn’t exactly the character-building exercise we dream of as parents.

I don’t want her self-worth wrapped up in her external features. 

Another good point, especially considering that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder—which means that someone else will always be prettier, at least to someone.  Plus, what happens as your little girl becomes a woman?  If her self-esteem has been based on how she looks, she might struggle (even more than we all do) as she ages.

I’d rather she care less about what others think about her.

Granted, this concern might also apply if her passion were chess.  She’d still likely enjoy the accolades she’d receive from her chess teacher for successfully executing the Panov-Botvinnik Attack.  (Yes, I looked that up.)  And you’d still want to work with her about finding meaning from within.  But again, as opposed to most activities, modeling is, by definition, primarily about how you look to other people.

So those are probably some of the main things that bother you about modeling camp.  But what if you’ve thoughtfully addressed these issues with your daughter, and she still pleads with you to let her go?  What do you do?

I can’t answer that for you.  But I will make three suggestions for conditions you might require your daughter to accept before you even consider allowing her to attend modeling camp.  These might serve to counter-balance some of your worries:

Condition #1:  Sleepaway Camp

Before she attends modeling camp, make it a prerequisite that she attend some sort of girls camp that puts her in the outdoors, far from technology and all things having to do with materialism and looks.  Spending time in nature developing authentic friendships, as opposed to having to navigate the social jungle that makes up the normal environment for so many teenagers, can give your daughter the opportunity to look at her life and relationships in a whole new way.  She’ll learn how capable she is at many new things that she might not have imagined, while building confidence, competence, and resilience.

Condition #2:  Service Project

Require that your daughter get involved in, or better yet design herself, a service project that is completely other-focused. Whatever it involves—helping younger children or homeless people, or working on a downtown reclamation project—require her to spend a significant amount of time thinking about “inner-beauty” issues and meaningful ways to invest her time that have nothing to do with make-up or clothes or the length of her hair.

Condition #3:  Empathy-Focused Activities

A related suggestion is to encourage your daughter to “get out of herself” by spending time understanding the problems that others have to deal with. Maybe she joins a group helping teens deal with trauma. Or maybe she volunteers at a homeless shelter. The more she can think about and understand the real difficulties that real people deal with, the less you will have to worry about her dedicating herself to more superficial interests.


In the end, I can’t tell you what to do for your daughter. I’ll just encourage you to continue to pay attention to her passions and desires. As you do, remain a loving, constant presence in her life, one that stands by her and also challenges her to grow into the kind of person who lives life with depth and meaning.  If all that is taking place, you won’t have to worry quite as much about what will happen when she spends a few days learning how to move on a runway.


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