If This, Then What? A Simple Way to Get Kids Thinking About Empathy

If This, Then What? A Simple Way to Get Kids Thinking About Empathy

By Karina Brisack

Talking to children about social justice can be tough. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and it can feel impossible to cover all everything – mostly because it is impossible. Despite that, we’d all like to prepare our kids for the problems they’ll encounter in the future. While it is important to teach them ways to handle particular situations, it is even more important to pass on the skills needed to encounter diverse ones. Children need the ability to think critically and empathetically about their own lives and the lives of others.

One of my favorite strategies is adapted from an improvisational theater exercise called “If This, Then What?” When you’re making up scenes on the spot, it can be easy to build yourself into a corner. What is there to do? A great trick is to use in that situation is to ask yourself “if this, then what?” For example, if I am playing a baker who has run out of flour, then what would I do? What would I feel? What are the consequences of my circumstances?

I find that this is an excellent exercise in empathy for children. Children tend to be very naturally concerned for the welfare of others, but have limited life experiences and often don’t understand the struggles of people who are different than them. Using “if this, then what” can help kids develop the creative skill of imagining lives different from their own.

The basic concept is very adaptable. At the most basic level, you can introduce the impact of choice-making (What do you think would have happened if Bob had used a screwdriver instead of a drill?). But the relevance of this strategy for social justice really comes into play when we use it to talk about the relationship between motivations, circumstances, and choices.

Let’s consider a story where one girl, Anne, wants to make friends with another girl, Maria. Maria likes to read comic books, so Anne decides to try reading them too. Anne ends up liking the book and sparking up a friendship with Maria. Then Maria invites Anne to her birthday party. That’s a pretty simple setup, but even something as simple as that can spark conversation. For instance, it can provide an opportunity to talk about financial barriers to entry can affect a person’s ability to participate in particular events. For example,

Adult: So, if Anne didn’t have money to buy that book, what do you think would have happened?

Child: Maybe they would have had to talk about something else.

Adult: Yeah, that’s true. Or maybe they wouldn’t have talked at all, or they wouldn’t be friends. What do you think might have happened then?

Child: She could make other friends. And she wouldn’t go to that party.

Adult: You’re probably right. And Maria wouldn’t get to be friends with Anne, either, which would be sad for Maria since they got along so well. If that happened, then how do you think Maria’s life might have been different?

The conversation might not go exactly like that, necessarily. But the point here isn’t to preach a particular message. Rather, it is to encourage a particular kind of thinking – a way of thinking that rewards curiosity into the life of others. It pushes back against the assumption that just because something is a certain way, it has to be that way.

Anyone who wants to make positive change has to be able to look at what’s happening now and engineer some way of making it better. They have to entertain possibilities. Playing “if this, then what” with kids can teach that skill, making them more effective and empathetic advocates for change.

Karina Brisack is a writer, teacher, and performer based in Houston, Texas. She loves comedy, her Scribd subscription, and attending niche academic conferences. Find her across social media @kbrisack.

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