Perspective-Taking: Considering Different Points of View

By Sarah Wright, Head Teacher

How often do we expect children to understand our perspective, but don’t take the time to understand theirs?” When I read this question on a parenting website, I appreciated the challenge it set for adults to look at their interactions with children and reflect on how they use perspective-taking skills in their own lives. It asks adults to take a fresh look at their own needs and how these needs can affect their understanding of a young child’s perspective.

Imagine this ordinary scene at a park: A parent asks a child to share a toy—say, a sand bucket—with a new player who just happens to be playing nearby. Why? Does the adult feel it will help develop the child’s perspective-taking skills? Surely, it must feel good for the new player to have a bucket to build sand castles with. That, in turn, should make the sharer (the child) feel good about the deed. Right?

Consider the power the adult has in this sharing example in determining whose perspective is more important. The adult has a need to teach sharing, the new player has a need for a bucket and the child who has brought sand toys to the park has a need to play with them when and how he/she wants.

Whose perspective should be taken into account? How much should adults really expect young children to have an understanding of others’ needs and adjust their behavior to suit others?

Some researchers suggest that young children are not yet able to fully understand the perspective of another. In a study conducted by Alison Gopnik, PhD, professor at University of California, Berkeley, and Betty Repacholi, PhD, professor at University of Washington, titled “Early Reasoning About Desires,” the researchers concluded that 14-month-old children told that the experimenter liked broccoli were not able to offer the experimenter what she really liked. Instead when asked, “Give me what I like,” they consistently offered their own preference, the Goldfish crackers. But by 18 months, children were able to take into account another person’s preference. It is generally accepted that very young children tend to behave egocentrically when assessing another’s perspective and have to develop perspective-taking skills over a period of time (Epley, Morewedge, and Keysarb, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2004). Developing perspective-taking skills often requires an understanding that others may not interpret the world exactly as you do.

At Bing, the teachers are trained to understand the perspective of children as a way to create relationships based on trust and respect. We believe young children learn perspective-taking skills when we are willing to understand their perspective. When we take time to listen, when we take them seriously, when we care about what they think and feel, children experience firsthand the impact of perspective-taking.

Let’s go back to the toy-sharing example in the park to gain a better understanding of how we as adults can support and help develop perspective-taking skills. The first step is to be willing to let go of our own perspective, and to become more neutral in our approach. Generally, young children are very territorial about their belongings. If they choose to bring them to the park, they expect to be able to have access to them when they want or need them. Children tend to believe that their perceptions of the world are accurate reflections of its properties and that others will therefore perceive the world as they do. So, from this perspective, sharing with a stranger is a difficult task, especially if a trusted adult appears to acknowledge the strangers’ needs first. Even if adults approach the idea of sharing in a calm and pleasant manner—“Wouldn’t it be nice if you could share your bucket? I think he would really like to build sand castles too”—the underlying message is the same: Give up one of your toys.

Instead, asking the child a few questions about his play plans may give adults some insight. For example, “You have brought two buckets today. What is your plan?” The child may respond: “I am going to build a castle, so I need to use both buckets.” Listening first will help adults better understand the child’s perspective and make it possible to share it with any child who wanders towards the toys: “Hi, did you know he is building a castle? Would you like to watch him build with me?” At this point adults can ask the child if he is going to need any help. Adults can then offer themselves and the inquisitive stranger as potential helpers. By allowing the child control of the play situation, adults may find he is much more willing to offer the use of a bucket.

Once young children interact with an adult who is willing to listen and respect their perspective, they are more open to seeing another’s point of view. They also learn it feels good to be taken care of in this way. If we teach children to understand other people’s intentions, they are less likely to jump to conclusions about the behavior of others. They are less likely to be possessive or aggressive. The more experience young children have in this type of positive interaction, the more perspective-taking skills they develop. Consider the following example:

Two children wanted to fly their own individual kites in parallel—while running down a hill. The hitch was, every time they tried it, one would reach the bottom of the hill before the other and the other would have to wait. After figuring out with a teacher that this inconsistency frustrated both of the children, they came up with the following solution:

“We are making something for each other. It’s a kite with two handles. Then I can hold it and fly it together, and so can Olivia.” “Yeah! And I have made one, too. We can both use it at the same time.”

In the classrooms, we have supported many occasions of successful social interaction by helping children understand that others may not interpret the world exactly as they do. Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of Families and Work Institute, supports this view in her book, Mind in the Making, stating “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.”

This following example shows advanced perspective-taking skills from a young child, Emily. She really wants her older sister (Landry) to be remembered by Bing alumnus Zachary in good light and for him to think she is doing well! It is an example that also shows this young child’s ability to figure out what others, including her sister and friend, may think or feel.

Emily (4 years): Zachary, who was in our class at Bing last year, was at school visiting today.

Landry (5 years): Oh, yeah! I remember him.

Emily: I told him you said, “Hi.”

Landry: But I didn’t say, “Hi.”

Emily: I know. But I didn’t want him to think you were dead.

This example is incredibly complex for a 4-year-old, showing her understanding that other people have different thoughts, intentions and feelings than she does. If we want to develop our children’s understanding that others have different likes, dislikes, intentions, thoughts and feelings, what must we do?

We must consider the power adults have to decide whose perspective is honored and whose perspective is not. If we can shift from our own perspective to helping young children feel understood, we are taking the first important step. Children learn perspective-taking skills when they see we understand their perspective—by listening carefully and taking their ideas seriously. We can talk about feelings (theirs and ours) as well as help clarify the intentions of other people. 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.