Let’s say your child comes home from school downcast, frustrated and grumpy. How you talk with him about his unhappiness can make a big difference in his life — not only in the kind of relationship you will have with him, but also in the kind of relationships he will develop with others.
In her new book, Mind in the Making, Ellen Galinsky gives research-backed advice on how “perspective taking” is one of the most valuable tools parents can use in dealing with their kids. She also explains how “perspective taking” is an essential life skill kids need to take on challenges and reach their full potential.
I’m delighted to share with you a recent interview I had with Ellen.
Joanne: Please tell us what you mean when you talk about “perspective taking” and why it is so important to human relationships and success in life.
Ellen: At the Families and Work Institute, we conduct an ongoing nationally representative study of the U.S. workforce. Over the years, we find that bosses who have children or elder care responsibilities are rated the most positively as bosses by their employees — they are more likely to keep employees informed of what they need to know to do their jobs well, have realistic expectations for employees’ performance, recognize employees for doing a good job at work, and are supportive when employees have work problems.
I have been asked repeatedly, why this is so. In some ways, it’s a counter-intuitive finding — having kids or elder care responsibility makes you a better boss — really?
My assumption is that having children and/or elder care responsibilities help bosses learn the skill of perspective taking — to become more adept at recognizing what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes, to understand what others think and feel. It includes empathy but goes far beyond it. Thus, when they supervise employees, bosses can take the employees’ perspectives into account and manage them more effectively. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a person widely acclaimed for his great leadership style, says that one of the leadership skills he works hard on cultivating is listening to and understanding the men and women in the armed services he oversees.
Research on children’s development supports this interpretation. Children who become more adept at perspective taking are more likely to be ready for school and succeed in school because they are more skilled at understanding and interpreting teachers’ expectations; they perform better on literacy tasks because they can understand the behavior of the characters in the books they are reading; and they are less likely to get into fights with other kids because they are more skilled at making sense of other kids’ behavior and less likely to jump to false conclusions about what is going on.
Related: Are We Losing Our Empathy?
Joanne: Will you share with us why you see perspective taking as a valuable parenting skill?
Ellen: I never started out my journey to interview and film many of the world’s leading child development researchers thinking that I would focus on life skills. My task was to discover what we as families and educators can do to keep the fire for learning in children burning brightly. In previous research, I had discovered that far too often life experiences were dimming that inborn fire for learning — that children didn’t have to drop out of school to drop out of learning.
Along the way in reading more than 1000 studies and interviewing and filming close to 100 researchers, I found that there are skills that emerge in children as they grow up and that these skills, if nurtured, are critical to their life success, both when they are young and when they grow up.
All of these “life skills” involve what scientists call executive functions of the brain, skills that involve the prefrontal cortex of the brain. I also found that 1) any child can learn these skills; 2) any adult can promote them in children; 3) they don’t call for expensive toys or programs — just doing things in slightly different ways; and 4) it is never too late for children to learn these skills. That’s why I decided to write Mind in the Making and focus on seven life skills, including perspective taking.
Joanne: You say that in addition to helping our children become independent, we should also focus on helping them learn to stay connected. Please explain.
Ellen: Many of us define growing up as a straight path from dependence to independence. In some ways, this is true. We do need to help children become increasingly more independent by developing the critical thinking skills they need to make reasonable judgments for themselves. But we also need to help children learn to reconnect with us in new ways — in each stage of their development. We have to help the preschooler who is saying “no, no, no” connect to and listen to us just as we have to help the teenager.
You can use a similar technique with both ages, because preschoolers and teenagers are both striving for autonomy. I am a big fan of family meetings. At a moment when your children are calm and not upset, you can call a family meeting. Let’s say that your kids are fighting in the back seat of the car. Tell them that you are not interested in who starts the fights but who has good ideas for stopping them. Ask them to generate as many ideas as possible for stopping the fights, writing each idea down without judgment. Then ask your children how each of these ideas would affect the other people in the family (perspective taking). As a family, select one idea to try to resolve the fights (critical thinking). Then have your children select the consequences if one of your children doesn’t follow through using this plan.
By using this problem-solving-with-consequences technique, you are not only promoting the life skills of perspective taking and critical thinking, you are helping your children exercise independence within your “connected” family relationships.
Joanne: What is the difference between tuning in to your children and giving in to them?
Ellen: Thanks so much for raising this issue. One of the reasons we don’t tune into children as much as we might is that we think that this leads to giving into them. But it doesn’t have to be the case — nor should it be. You need to help children understand the difference. You can say, “I know you want to hit your sister because she upset up, but you have to find a different way to tell her she is upsetting you than hurting her.” Or you can say, “I know you want that toy, but it is too expensive and I am not going to buy it.” In other words you can acknowledge their feelings, without giving into them.
Joanne: Can you give us some examples of how we can use the concept of perspective taking when we’re dealing with sibling squabbles with our kids?
Ellen: Another great question! Take the example I described above of using a problem-solving-with-consequences technique for reducing sibling squabbles in the back seat of the car. For each idea suggested, ask each child how his or her sibling would respond to that idea. For instance, if one of the ideas that your younger child suggests is that the older child “should just be quiet and never talk,” ask your younger child how that would work for the older sibling. Researchers call this “other-oriented discipline.” When children can understand how their actions affect others, they are less likely to be hurtful.
For more of Ellen Galinsky’s fascinating and expert advice, pick up a copy of her newest book, Mind in the Making. She is president and cofounder of the Families and Work Institute and helped establish the field of work and family life at Bank Street College of Education, where she was on the faculty for twenty-five years. Ellen continues to conduct seminal research on the changing workforce and changing family. She has written more than forty books and has received numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the 2004 Distinguished Achievement Award from Vassar College. A popular keynote speaker, Ellen was a presenter at the White House Conference on Child Care in 2004 and on Teenagers in 2000. She is featured regularly in the media, including appearances on Good Morning, America, World News Tonight and The Oprah Winfrey Show.