How Children Learn to See Someone Else’s Perspective

I have often written about the need for adults to be willing to understand the perspective of children as a way to create relationships that are based on greater trust and respect.

I came to this place as a result of my own unwillingness to see the perspective of the children in my life. It took me some time to admit I was in that place.

If you google “perspective taking” it is written about as an essential skill that children need to develop. It is seen as a skill that develops over time as the child grows.

Here’s what Ellen Galinsky from Mind in the Making has written about it.

“Perspective taking goes far beyond empathy; it involves figuring out what others think and feel, and forms the basis for children’s understanding of their parents’, teachers’, and friends’ intentions. Children who can take others’ perspectives are also much less likely to get involved in conflicts.”

Reading various articles about perspective taking got me thinking about the power adults have to decide whose perspective is more important and whose perspective gets to be ignored.

At an institutional and societal level, adults are given power over children. Because of the differences in our physical stature, we also have greater physical power. Children, especially young children, still depend on adults to ensure their survival.

Our culture assumes that this dependence means that a child’s needs and desires are not as important as an adult.

I was socialized within this paradigm of adult power and control over children.

As a parent, when the children in my life began to resist the ways I controlled them, I struggled with my conflicting desires. I wanted to be respectful of the child, to try and understand the child’s perspective. At the same time I had the desire to gain compliance from the child, to make him or her see MY perspective.

When I am calm and feel centered and ground, perspective taking is pretty darn easy.

But when under stress, I have used my power to force a child to accept or at least give in to my point of view, while at the same time I claim feelings of powerlessness.

I talk over them, interrupt them, and coerce them. I close myself off and refuse to see their perspective. Sometimes all I want is for the child to understand MY perspective.

I distinctly remember a time when the youngest child in my life was 3 and after a long day of being out together and playing we came home. He went to the area where his sister kept her toys in the other room. I went into the kitchen to try and get some food started for us.

The child wanted me to give him a set of plastic penguins that were his sister’s. His sister wasn’t home so I wasn’t sure that she was ready to pass them on to her younger sibling.

Instead of listening to the younger child, I became frustrated and impatient. I interrupted him and told him that the penguins were his sister’s and we could not play with them until she got home. He started to say something else and I tossed the box on the floor and said, “Fine, just do whatever you want with them.” I walked out the room.

The young child walked out of the bedroom a few seconds later and said, “Mom, ask when she gets home if I can play with the penguins.” This is probably what he had planned to say all along, but I kept interrupting him because I felt as though he was not listening to me.

My need was for him to comply without argument in that moment. When he started to engage in more conversation, I assumed he was going to make a case for playing with the penguins before his sister came home.

As I reflected on my behavior and emotions during the exchange, I thought about how much I wanted the child to understand me. Somehow if he just understood my perspective, he would see what I “needed” him to do and he would do it.

I wanted him to understand my perspective, but I was not willing to understand his.

Too often when we talk about helping children develop perspective taking skills and empathy, we only think about what the child needs to do.

We look at what the child is lacking and think, “she needs to learn this.”

We judge the child’s inability to take on another person’s perspective based on whether or not they take on OUR adult perspective.

Another way to think about perspective taking is to examine how we take steps as the adult with more power to understand the child’s perspective.

Do we use perspective taking skills with the children in our lives? Or is it a one-way street?

I’ve driven down that one-way street and it’s not pleasant a trip.

When we “teach” children perspective taking through the use of power or force, they aren’t learning about empathy and perspective taking.

They are learning how to use power over others. They are learning what they think and feel doesn’t matter. They are learning that adults say one thing and do something else.

Children learn perspective taking skills when we are willing to understand their perspective.

When we take the time listen, when we take them seriously, when we care about what they think and feel, they experience first-hand what the impact of perspective taking is.

They learn that it feels good to be cared for in this way.

In turn, they can learn over time how to understand another person’s perspective because they’ve experienced it themselves with the adults in their lives.

But there’s more than that.

When we are shifting from an adult dominated world-view to one where we are trying to respect and trust children, to equalize the power dynamics, we need to remember that in our own childhoods adults most likely did not take the time to understand our perspective.

The reason that we “fight” so hard to make sure others understand us, including the children in our lives, is because we weren’t heard and understood as children.

We spend our adulthood trying to carve out space for ourselves. When we feel we aren’t getting enough, children are more likely to trigger us.

Like me, you react from this place of pain and behave in ways that reflect how you were treated as a child.

We are responsible for the ways we behave and the ways we treat children.

At the same time we have to be willing to nurture ourselves, so we don’t have to feel as though our needs are in competition with the needs of children.

That feeling of competition feels very real and yet we can reframe it.

By giving to ourselves love, acceptance, and understanding we begin to reframe it.

When we are gentle with ourselves, especially when we feel we are at our “worst,” we begin the process of moving through our past and creating a present with children where everyone’s perspective and everyone’s needs have value.

We go beyond the either-or mentality and open the possibility that we can meet everyone’s needs.

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