In Someone Else's Shoes

Key Takeaways

  • Perspective taking helps children build relationships with others and develop empathy.
  • To take others perspectives, children must first understand that people have unique thoughts and opinions.
  • Try asking questions about the characters in books you read to your child: What do you think they like? What might they be thinking and feeling?

Considering others’ ideas and perspectives helps us act with kindness and build strong social relationships.1 But before we can do that, we must understand that others have thoughts and opinions that are different than ours.

Similarly, before you can walk in someone else's shoes you have to know what your own shoes feel like. Without the basis of self awareness and emotional understanding, looking at the world from another person's viewpoint doesn't feel relevant or make too much sense to children. It is important to realize that this skill is more complex than we realize, and its development is an ongoing process.

What Does Following Directions Look Like Across Childhood?

3-4 years

  • Differing Perspectives: Children are realizing that others have various feelings and needs, but may not yet understand that these needs and preferences are different from their own. For example, a child might share their favorite stuffed animal when they see another child feeling sad.2
  • Growing Awareness: Children may still need explicit communicative cues of others' perspectives and preferences.3 For instance, a child might not provide context or explanation for a story because they assume that you know exactly what they know.
  • Getting Funny: Beginning to understand exaggeration, humor, and jokes. They might explain, "Teacher Mia says she has a pet tiger at her house, but she's just being silly."

4-5 years

  • Differing Perspectives: Can separate their own perspectives from those of others, "I like pineapple on my pizza, but my dad does not."
  • Increasing Curiosity: Becoming more curious about other children's perspectives, "Raise your hand if you like chocolate ice cream!"
  • Problem Solving: Using their understanding of other's perspectives to problem solve, "Since we both want to be the superhero, let's take turns." Children may still need some grown-up support here!

5-6 years


  • Differing Perspectives: Remembering another person's preferences. A child might save the peanut butter cookie for a friend because that is their friend's favorite flavor.
  • Unique Beliefs: Can understand that many people have diverse beliefs, opinions, and experiences. "Not everyone likes the same things as I do!"
  • Role of Experience: Beginning to understand that experiences shape preferences and beliefs. "My friend is scared of the dog, because she is not used to being around them."

What Can You Do to Encourage Perspective Taking:

  • Swap Roles. Pretend to be the other person while completing a task or playing a game. You can even literally walk around the room in the other person's shoes! Talk about how that felt - was it silly, confusing, interesting?
  • Ask Questions. When you read books or watch shows, ask questions about the characters you see. Why do you think the character thought or acted a certain way? What would you do if you were in the same situation as that character?
  • Model perspective taking. Talk about why other people might have different beliefs or feelings than you. Explain that a person's experiences can shape their beliefs.
  • Dramatic play. Acting things out is a great way to role play another person's ideas, feelings, and thoughts.4 As children pretend to be other people, real or not, they are both learning what it is like to experience life as someone else and practicing how to respond to and relate to others.

References

  1. Imuta, K., Henry, J. D., Slaughter, V., Selcuk, B., & Ruffman, T. (2016). Theory of mind and prosocial behavior in childhood: A meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 52(8), 1192-1205.
  2. Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., & Spinrad, T. L. (2006). Prosocial Development. In Handbook of Child Psychology: Social, Emotional, and Personality Development, Vol. 3, 6th ed (pp. 646-718). John Wiley & Sons Inc.
  3. Wu, Z., & Su, Y. (2014). How do preschoolers' sharing behaviors relate to their theory of mind understanding? J. Exp. Child Psychol. 120, 73-86.
  4. Qu, L., Shen, P., Chee, Y. Y., & Chen, L. (2015). Teachers' theory-of-mind coaching and children's executive function predict the training effect of sociodramatic play on children's theory of mind. Social Development, 24(4), 716-733.

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