Life Skills: The Benefit of Perspective Taking

mind in the making - perspective taking

In the book Mind in the Making, Ellen Galinsky shares seven important life skills that children need to be taught:

  1. Focus and Self Control
  2. Perspective Taking
  3. Communicating
  4. Making Connections
  5. Critical Thinking
  6. Taking on Challenges
  7. Self-Directed, Engaged Learning

There is a common misconception that life skills are picked up by children as they go through life. Although this may be the case for some life skills, sometimes it is necessary for us to take specific measures to ensure that our children learn these skills and learn them well. For instance, children generally develop perspective taking as they grow older but some children are better at it than others. If you want to ensure that your child is good at it, there are specific things you can do to promote its development in your child.

What is perspective taking?

In a nutshell, it is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand what they are thinking and feeling. Individuals who are adept at perspective taking are capable of correctly interpreting what others are thinking, and what they mean from what they say and do.

There are numerous benefits of perspective taking. Here are just a couple of examples and I’m sure you can extrapolate from these:

  • understanding what your boss wants so you can deliver what is required. Individuals with better perspective taking will naturally perform better in their careers.
  • understanding how your partner feels so there is less fighting over misunderstandings.

The Benefit of Perspective Taking

Children with better perspective taking skills are less likely to be involved in conflicts with other children and this benefits them at school because they are then free to focus on learning. According to Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D. “if a child can’t sit still, if a child is preoccupied with feelings of sadness or anxiety, or if a child can’t control his or her impulses, or is dealing with unresolved aggressive feelings, they all interfere with the ability to sit and master” new skills. In other words, children who are angry cannot learn effectively.

Similarly, in the role of discipline, this is the reason why there is little point in attempting to discipline a child who is angry or upset. They cannot hear the lesson you are trying to give them. In such instances, time outs for parents and children are best until both parties are calm again before talking about the transgression. As tempting as it is to shout your discipline to your misbehaving child (I know, I’ve succumbed to that many a time just out of sheer frustration), it is a futile measure because your child won’t hear you not because he is deliberately ignoring you but because he is unable to process what you are saying with all those emotions clouding his head.

Just think about when you’re angry and in conflict with a friend or family member and ask yourself how much of what the other person is saying do you really “hear”? If you’re really honest, you will admit that you don’t hear much. Or that you only hear what you want to hear. If we have trouble hearing others when we’re angry, just think how hard it would be for a child who is more easily overwhelmed by the magnitude of his emotions.

Another benefit of perspective taking is being able to extrapolate events in both positive and negative light, especially when there is insufficient information to determine the true cause. For example, when a child pushes another child. In isolation, there is no way of knowing whether that push was accidental or intentionally aggressive. Without that information, how a child reacts depends on whether the child has a “hostile attribution bias”. That means, children who think the world is out to get them will naturally assume the push was intentional and respond aggressively to it even though they do not have sufficient information to make that conclusion. Children with perspective taking skills are able to realise that they don’t have enough information and will look for it before coming to the correct conclusion.

Here’s a common example most of us face everyday… When someone cuts you off in traffic, it is easy to get angry about it especially if you’ve had a bad day or if the kids are fighting in the car (that’s the stressful environment). However, you may respond more favourably to the situation if you could consider that the person might have cut you off because he was in a hurry to get his pregnant wife who is in labour to the hospital, or any other legitimate reason as opposed to merely being out to get ahead of you. Perspective taking helps us deal with everyday situations as simple as this to more complicated ones involving work and family.

In summary, perspective taking helps children understand their world which offers the security they need for more complex learning. Understanding what others are thinking also help children adjust better to new situations. Finally, perspective taking helps children to be more successful in later life because they are better able to deal with other people which is a fundamental requirement for success in life.

Ways to promote perspective taking in children:

1. Practice what we preach

We all know that old adage – “monkey see, monkey do”. The best way to teach our children is to lead by example. Even as parents, we, too, need to practice the art of perspective taking because it is easy to lapse when the situation is stressful.

2. Teach children to be with others

As parents, we’re often trying to teach our children to become independent. However, teaching them to get along with other people is just as important as learning to be independent. For example – this is a common one most parents with multiple children would face – when the children fight (as they invariably do) instead of merely telling them to stop fighting, help them figure out what they can do to “live more harmoniously with each other”.

3. Build the right foundation by developing a warm and trusting relationship

This is basically a fundamental part of every parent-child relationship, but it also helps children learn perspective taking. Children who feel safe and secure in their relationship with their parents are generally better at perspective taking.

4. Help children feel known and understood

There is a common misconception that tuning into our children’s feelings means giving into them. That is not the case. For instance, when your child wants to go to the park but it is late and you’ve said “no”, he flies into a tantrum. He is upset that he didn’t get what he wanted. Most parents (myself included) feel that temper tantrum is uncalled for and a child’s way of misbehaving. The natural reaction then is to tell your child to “stop it or else”!

Let’s take a step back and look at it. Getting upset about not being able to do something is a normal reaction. As adults, when we don’t get what we want we get upset, too, except our vast experiences in life help us deal with the disappointment appropriately (heck, let’s face it, some of us adults don’t deal with it appropriately either). For a child, a tantrum is an immature way of dealing with the disappointment because he hasn’t learned how to deal with the emotion constructively. By showing your child understanding and helping him get past it, you are teaching him coping skills he can apply in later life as opposed to merely telling him to “zip it”.

5. Talk about feelings

Talking about feelings – yours and your children’s – helps them understand them better. Teaching your children how you feel helps them learn to see your perspective.

6. Talk about other people’s perspectives using everyday experiences

Similarly, talking about everday experiences can help children learn more about perspective taking. In fact, children learn more easily when they can see real life examples rather than abstract explanations.

7. Encourage children to play pretend

Pretend games are a great way for children to explore feelings so they can learn to understand them. It is a child’s way of trying on other people’s perspectives.

8. Use other-oriented discipline

This involves explaning to your child how their actions may affect others or their feelings. For example, when you do that it hurts your brother and it makes him sad because he thinks you don’t like him. Incidentally, other-oriented discipline is negated by harsh discipline so it is pointless to use this method while using harsh discipline such as threats or physical force.

9. Teach appraisal skills

This was highlighted above in the example of a child being pushed by another child. It involves teaching children how to figure out someone else’s intention and that they have choices in how they handle the conflict. This helps them reduce the likelihood of jumping to conclusions about someone else’s actions especially where there isn’t enough information available.

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Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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