Teaching Empathy to Older Kids: Video Tips from a Japanese Classroom

Empathy. Happiness. We know we want to teach these essential life skills to our kids. But how? This series of short videos showcases the attitude one Japanese schoolteacher uses to teach his students how to be caring, happy kids. This first segment introduces Mr. Kanemori -- a kind, tough, funny teacher whose goal is to teach kids how to live a happy life -- and how to care for other people. But he doesn't sugar-coat life, and the challenges even children confront:

In the second segment, the kids learn key lessons about bullying and what it means to be a true friend. I was amazed at how long he stuck with the lesson. A good lesson for us in how long it takes to convey these complex skills to the kiddos:

The third segment gives a great lesson on how to negotiate with kids. Mr. Kanemori doesn't hide his aggravation -- but he doesn't rigidly stick with his punishment when the kids explain it wasn't fair, either. This is especially hard in parenting, because you want the kids to know you are serious in setting limits, and don't want to let them think they can run over you. Yet sometimes, the kids have a point, and we can model what a reasonable negotiation looks like:

The fourth segment shows us how even children can be taught how to handle life's tragedies. We want to bubble-wrap them to protect them from the uncertainties of life. We can't -- but we can give them skills to be more resilient:

Finally, the school year comes to an end. Have the kids learned anything from Mr. Kanemori? You be the judge. (Get your kleenex ready.)

Empathy and happiness CAN be taught -- but it's not easy. It takes more time and dedication than most of us realize. Do you teach these lessons at home? And how can we even start doing this in school?


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert Sign up for my Newsletter and Follow Me:

Developmental Issues: Why Your First Grader Probably Doesn't Have ADD or ADHD

One of my pet peeves is the tremendous pressure that schools have been putting on our young children to "perform". Over the past several years, schools have been ratcheting up their demands for the performance of academic tasks on younger and younger children. But the developmental realities of young children don't change just because No Child Left Behind wants "results". Young children aren't yet capable, cognitively or psychologically, to tackle heavy-duty academic work -- without paying a price. And I worry about those children, like Linda's daughter below, who may be unfairly flagged as having "problems with focus", or even labeled ADD/ADHD, at such a young age.

Read on for Linda's question, and my answer below:

Hi Dr Heather,

My six-year-old daughter is in first grade. Her teacher says she has "focus" issues, and is worried. While this is a small class in a private school, she is there for about 10 hours every day. That's a long day. I think she just gets tired in the afternoon…at that age the best thing would be for her to be at the house at 3p I think. However we both work full time so it's not an option.

I asked the principal about holding her back. However because she is so smart, there is a chance she would be bored and the principal says in her experience (30 years) holding back children due to focus issues rarely solves the issue at hand. She was tested at age three with a district program that checks for ADD and other issues, and the assessor saw no warning flags.

I think she is just a kinesthetic learner who is dreamy and in her head..and should probably be in school for a shorter day. Am I missing something? Can you really say "ADD" for sure at age six? I am worried that this could just be normal range of behavior for this age, and the requirements of schools these days are just the stress trigger, making her hard to work with.



Hi Linda,

In general, I do agree with you that our educators are expecting WAY too much of our children these days, when it comes to "performance" at an early age.

First grade is an interesting age. Teachers will tell you that they typically witness a huge change in children as the year progresses. Most kids will make the transition from what I see as more of a "preschool" sort of mentality, to more of a "grade school kid" sort of mentality. It's a big step that's made sometime during the year, and many issues of the kind you describe are sorted out in the process. That's why standardized tests are viewed (at least by testing specialists) as being NOT super-valid until SECOND grade. There are too many variables up through the first grade. That's also why we typically don't diagnose a child with ADD/ADHD until at least age 7.

Our own daughter was "flagged" in first grade for variable performance on standardized tests that year. It made me crazy that they made the first graders sit for standardized tests at all -- they're worthless at that age! By the time they had a specialist test her (at the END of the year), all the issues they were concerned about had "vanished". She is now doing beautifully in third grade.

Now of course I can't directly evaluate your daughter, but I do think the questions you are asking are valid, developmentally. Asking a 6-year-old to focus for 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, is pretty unrealistic. But of course you want to make sure to take any legitimate concerns seriously.

You might consider asking the teacher to reinforce "on task" behavior, instead of simply worry about "off-task" behavior. You and she can collaboratively set up a plan whereby your daughter is rewarded (with something simple, like stickers or checkmarks, to trade in for small prizes) on a chart for demonstrating a few minutes at a time of "on-task" behavior. You want to set it up so that the goals are ACHIEVABLE -- not something diffuse like "having a good day". You will get much farther with rewarding her for focusing, than by making a federal case out of her being "off-task". You also want to avoid giving her undue attention for NEGATIVE behavior, especially at this age. Kids have a way of absorbing the negative attention directed at them, and can internalize the idea that they "have a problem". You're much better off by reinforcing -- and praising her -- for doing what you'd like her to do more of. You can also tie her performance at school to things you want her to do at home -- listen, complete chores, etc. If reinforcement and praise are coordinated between home and school, you have a better chance of improving things in both places.

See where this gets you, and let us know how it goes.

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Developmental Issues: Did Swine Flu Cause Autism In My Son?

There's a lot of confusion out there about illness, the flu, vaccines, medications, and autism. This poor Mom is terrified that her son may have contracted Autism from a bout of Swine Flu. Here's her email to me: Dear Dr. Heather,

Please help. I saw your article on autism, and I am very intrigued and impressed by your knowledge and insight.

I don’t know what to do. I have two beautiful, 91/2 month old identical twin boys who were always very social, smiley, interactive, looking directly into the face, etc. The one I am most concerned about would turn his head and smile at his brother in their crib, smile at everybody, I would play the ‘up’ game with him and he would gaze into my eyes, smile, and giggle… and they both almost always responded by looking when I said their names.

Then one of them got sick with Swine Flu on August 6th. His brother got sick on August 8th. I will never forgive myself as the last time I remember him (the baby who got sick on the 8th) acting distinctly like himself was the 6th when I went to pick up his sick brother at daycare… he looked right up into my eyes, threw up his arms, smiled, and said ‘Mommmmm’…. And I barely paid attention to him, I rushed to his sick brother… I should’ve thrown my arms around him and hugged him and praised him…. I have such guilt and keep worrying/wondering what if that is the last time he ever does that?

They were both put on Tamiflu due to being high-risk (they have asthma symptoms). The baby I am most concerned about didn’t get as high a fever, but the virus infected his eye, and we think he also got a bacterial infection, so he got eye-drops and Amoxycillin as well. He was miserable and cranky for days. I know he can hear (by testing by loud noises, etc.) and he doesn’t have an ear infection, as he’s seen a doctor.

Now he is not himself. I first noticed this as he got better. He is not responding when I say his name, hardly ever. If he does he just looks for a second. He will make eye contact, but only for a second or two. He looks away when I try to play the ‘up’ game with him. He is still babbling, but not as much. He did this weird whisper-babbling this morning and smacked his lips. He is still playing with his toys, but is also playing with non-toy objects like straps and blinds.

The doctor has an ear test set up for him, but I have to wait two weeks just for a call to make the appointment.

Can a virus or antibiotics trigger autism? Does a flu ever attack the ears, eyes, or brain which might cause sudden symptoms? What are the other possibilities might be going on if he doesn’t have an ear infection? This is a very, very abrupt change.

What tests should I push for to find out what is wrong as soon as possible? What are the possibilities?

So far his brother is acting normally, but I am terrified as I'm worried about it affecting both twins eventually.

Please, I would love a response. We have (mega-large HMO) and it is hard to get tests/things done. I am eagerly awaiting your response and guidance.

Very, very sincerely, Concerned Mom

Obviously, this mom is in a state of desperation, so I responded immediately:

Dear Concerned Mom,

Of course I cannot evaluate your son myself and as such, I can only provide some educational information for you. But I did want to respond right away because you sound so very upset and worried.

First of all, please know that autism is thought most likely to be a genetically-related developmental issue, and I have seen no convincing information that it can be caused by a simple flu or other virus in a child, nor by antibiotics or antivirals. Additionally, the timeframe you mention of the abrupt changes in your son do not sound like the onset of autism. After all, it's been barely 2 weeks since the onset of his flu symptoms.

A (temporary) step backwards in response to illness However, it is VERY common to see temporary developmental regression in response to illness. This means that your child can take several steps BACKWARD developmentally -- in response to illness and/or stress -- and then "bounce back" days or weeks later. It's all part of the normal developmental process,which is full of starts, stops, and reversals -- the old "one step forward, two steps back" thing. Young children don't understand that the course of illness is temporary; that they will get better. They simply know they feel lousy. They are not up to showing off all their "best" developmental skills. They commonly regress to earlier stages of development, temporarily, until they feel better. And often times, symptoms of illness can linger for WEEKS in children -- especially for something as yucky as a flu. If he is showing regression in response to illness, the regression itself can linger for weeks as well, past the time that he gets better. This may vary from child to child and from illness to illness, so his brother may be fine (at least this time). Personalities vary in response to illness and stress I don't know about your husband, but when mine gets sick, he just wants everyone to GO AWAY. (is this a guy thing?) He's crabby and won't talk to me and is just a completely different personality than when he's feeling well. Everyone is different, and your boys also will have different responses to stress and illness. The point is that there are very reasonable possible explanations as to why your son is acting so differently than his usual self, for this relatively short timeframe.

It's important that you respond in a positive and supportive way, and not convey to him that you're so worried. He's able to pick up your anxieties, and internalize the message that "something must be wrong with him". He needs reassurance that he WILL get better, and WILL feel better, but for now he still feels lousy and needs to be babied -- and that's OK.

As I said, however, I cannot evaluate your child from afar, so it's important you get your doctors' advice, as it sounds like you are doing. But since you have to wait for appointments, I would take this time to hang out with your boys in a relaxed way, giving them the chance to fully recover.

Please let us know how you're all doing in a few weeks' time.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

How to Talk to Kids: A Great Book

Our 6-year-old is in the throes of a really anxious phase. He often needs to be reassured about where we are, even if we're all just in the house. He's afraid to go to sleep at night. And he's terrified of "ET", a classic we allowed the babysitter to show the kids one night. You'd think my shrink-training would help in these situations, but often it doesn't. You know how it goes: When it comes to your own kids, rational knowledge goes out the window. Intellectually, I remind myself that 6-year-olds aren't rational creatures yet. They can't hang on to the logical reassurances we give them. They haven't reached the stage where logic "sticks" in their minds. In many ways, they're still like preschoolers; apt to live in the "magical world" of fantasy, imagination, and fears.

But when he's scared out of his wits, part of me wants to scream, "Snap out of it! We're not leaving you, we never have, and we never will! Enough, already, and go to sleep!"

So I'm calling in reinforcements. I've pulled an awesome book off my shelf and am reminded why I think this is one of the world's best parenting guides. If you haven't seen it, go spend 10 bucks on Amazon for the paperback version, or check it out of your library. You'll refer to it again and again (and I promise, I get no "cut" from promoting anything here). It's called "Between Parent and Child", by Dr. Haim Ginott. It was first published a million years ago, but it couldn't be more appropriate today. His sensitivity and approach to dealing with children simply can't be matched. Reading Ginott again has lifted a weight from my shoulders and reminded me that all will be well with our son, soon enough. It's also given me lots of good ideas for how to approach this phase-specific anxiety he's going through.

I hope you enjoy it!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Child Development: Does Your Child Have Food Allergies?

Having a child with food allergies is tough -- first, there are the obvious safety issues involved. You don't want your child to accidentally -- or intentionally -- eat something that may make him sick, or even kill him. Then there are the practical challenges; finding acceptable, palatable food substitutes for the things he can't eat. I know many families who have to spend tons of time (and money) planning and making separate meals for their allergic kids, and strategizing about "dangerous" situations like birthday parties and school lunch rooms. But it doesn't stop there. The doctors and nutritionists who diagnose the allergies, and prescribe the necessary diets, unfortunately don't often have the time to get into the psychological aspects of food allergies -- and leave the parents wondering how to handle this very tricky aspect of the allergy.

The behavioral and emotional effects of the allergy and related diets include the resentment caused in the child by not being able to eat foods his friends CAN eat. The feelings of deprivation and being "different". The parents' worry that these food issues will lead to eating disorders in adolescence. All of these problems are very real challenges of raising a child with a food allergy.

I recently got a phone call from a friend who's daughter has multiple food allergies -- gluten, casein (dairy protein), tree nuts -- the works. They've been able to reasonably control her food intake up until recently; she's now an active, busy second-grader who is starting to get resentful that the other kids can get all kinds of foods that are forbidden to her. My friend was mortified to tell me that they discovered a stack of 30 or more string-cheese wrappers stuffed under the couch recently. And a rash that preceded the cheese-eating was diagnosed by the doctor as "psychological". Poor little thing is itching herself raw, and hoarding and "sneaking" disallowed foods.

I've got some ideas about how to handle these issues, and I've had to do the gluten and casein-free diet in our home for awhile when we were ruling out food allergies with our daughter. But I know there are a LOT of you out there struggling directly with these challenges in your home. I'm hoping some of you will post your comments to my friend here, giving us some tips for what works -- and what doesn't -- in your home. I'll collect your responses and include them with some of my own in my next post.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Parenting Tips: "Racism", Young Children, and Obama: Lessons Learned in Hawaii

Racism, Young Children, and Obama: Lessons Learned in HawaiiThere's been a lot of focus on Hawaii lately, since Barack Obama was raised here. It's been very exciting for our little outpost way out on the end of the country to see a native son go so far in the world. My own claim to fame was that, when I lived on Oahu, I attended the same school from which he graduated. When I went to college on the mainland, it was difficult to explain my sense of race, ethnicity, and diversity. In Hawaii, everyone is a minority. We co-exist in an intermarried hodgepodge of nationalities and ethnicities. Interestingly, being Caucasian has a slightly negative connotation; we're called "haole" here, meaning "outsider"; so much so that I grew up "passing" for being part-Japanese, even though there's not a drop of Asian blood in my woodpile. I aspired to be part-Japanese. I considered the other races of my friends...Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Korean, African-American...they were all "something". Part-Chinese. Part-Hawaiian. Part-something. Being a haole, in contrast, was not "something". It was.....boring. Nothing. So my view of racial and ethnic differences was formed in a place where variation and difference was exciting, challenging, and essential to the vibrant success of the community. The best of all worlds. If I may so humbly draw a parallel to the Senator's upbringing and my own, I am proud to say this is it.

Recently, a friend called to ask about his 5-year-old daughter. He was appalled that she had told her teacher that she doesn't like "brown-skinned people". This is from a family dedicated to acts of social justice, and fairness and equal opportunity for all. He was mystified (and mortified). Where did she come up with this hateful idea? And how could they turn around her thinking?

The issue of race is, of course, a hot-button topic that quickly raises all sorts of feelings, attitudes, and ideas. I'm going to make the assumption that people who read a site called BabyShrink are fairly progressively-minded, so I'm not aiming to convert anybody with racist leanings. I'm preaching to the choir on that account, folks, right? We're all hoping to raise kids with the ability to comfortably live in an ever-increasingly cosmopolitan world; kids who appreciate others (and themselves) for their unique individuality and differences, and who seek to learn from others with a different background or skin color -- not to negatively judge them. So instead of getting into a dissertation on race-relations, let's focus on the parenting issues involved.

Is it possible for a young child to be "racist"?

OK, that's my first question. For some answers, let's look at the developmental issues. We know that babies have an innate preference for faces that look like the faces they usually see. In other words, babies with fair-skinned parents and siblings prefer to look at strangers with fair skin. The same holds true no matter what the family's skin color. A reasonable explanation for this has to do with our innate drive to survive. Something in us, probably genetic, tells us "People who take care of me look like this.......Those people help me to survive, and I want to be part of that group. Therefore, I prefer people who look like those of my group." If that means a young child from a fair-skinned family prefers fair-skinned faces, is that child a racist? Of course not. That's just evolutionary protection aimed at keeping families and kin together, for the protection of the group. And it's hard-wired at a pre-verbal, pre-thinking stage.

How can I make sure my child does not develop racist ideas and attitudes?

Of course, there comes a point in the child's development where rational thinking then becomes possible. It's at that time that automatic, hard-wired assumptions can be challenged by thoughtful discussions and actions. That cognitive ability doesn't really kick in until about the age of 7. But even as early as 12-18 months, children start to imitate us, and soak in our examples by osmosis. So you can start early by modeling the behavior and attitudes you wish your child to have. As they get older, you can begin to talk about the issues more abstractly.

Live a life of diversity

So the bottom line here is that, as families, it's important to surround our kids with examples of diversity in day-to-day life, just as a matter of course. Even a very young child will take in the modeling you show when you interact in a comfortable, relaxed way with people who look different from those she's used to seeing. But don't start making abstract statements about race, color, religion or other topics of difference until a bit later. When she's in first grade or so, she'll begin to understand it when you start talking about differences. Esoteric, abstract concepts will bounce off a 5-year-old's mind. "We're all people inside, even though we look different on the outside", and "What makes you different is what makes you special" are all great things to say, but really can't be understood by a young child. So wait on the discussions until first grade or so. But make it a priority to appreciate differences of all kinds; different hair color, clothing styles, body types, differing physical abilities, all of it, and make a comfortable environment where the acceptance of differences is fostered and encouraged.

"How would you feel if someone said that about you?"

You can also start to talk about manners and feelings, and have your child look at it from an empathic point of view. "How would you feel if someone did not like you for the way you looked? How would you feel if someone said something mean about you, and they didn't even know you?" Talk about how others might feel for being negatively judged. Let them practice putting themselves in others' shoes. This will help them to consider the impact of their words on others.

So I don't think that my friend's child is becoming a little racist. Far from it; she's looking for differences where they do exist, but she doesn't yet have the analytic capacity to apply abstract concepts to those differences.

How do you handle differences, when it comes to your young children?

Parenting Tips: Dealing With Sensitive Boys And Emotions

Dear Dr. Heather,

Danny talks about his son, who is only a year younger than mine, having a propensity for tears. Our son is very similar. He is a budding perfectionist (as his mom was) and gets stormy when he can't do things right on the first few tries. It really, really bothers his dad, who was teased unmercifully by other kids when he was young and did the same thing. Danny mentioned that he tries to work through those moments with the Champ, and I was kind of hoping you might get him to share some of those specifics or some of your own. (I believe he did blog at one point about trying to make the Champ laugh when he saw such a situation arising in baseball, but if you or he have any other hands-on solutions, I would love to hear them!)

In one sense we are lucky, because being somewhat overly concerned with success has not kept him from trying things, as it did me. But it took me 20 years to learn that I didn't have to do everything perfectly to enjoy it, and I am hoping we can significantly shorten the learning curve for my son.


Donna, Rossville, KS


Hi, Donna,

I have a five-year-old who's a real perfectionist too (he comes by it naturally, like your son). Sometimes he does give up trying when it's difficult -- that real danger your son has sidestepped, so that's a great start already. As long as they don't give up and keep trying, what you're really asking about, I guess, is the stormy emotional reaction.

Does his reaction get him into trouble, say at school, or with his friends, like what happened to his dad? Or is the real problem your worry about his future possible perfectionism -- and his Dad's worry about his tears? Because there are different approaches, depending on where the problem lies.

If his emotional reactions DO get him into trouble, talk with him about what to do with his feelings, instead of breaking down. Make sure he knows that his feelings are always OK, but it's how we handle them that matters. Make a plan ahead of time, when he's feeling good. Practice some things that he can do instead: take three deep breaths (practice with him and you can make it a silly game). Help him find words for his frustration. "I wish I could do it right! It makes me so mad! "  Et cetera.

If he's doing well and it's really more of your worries, remember, he's young. You might want to observe his classroom; I'll bet there are a couple of other kids in his class who are similar. You might even ask his teacher about it; they have lots of experience in dealing with all sorts of kids, and often have insights that we as parents don't.

His perfectionism can really be an asset -- I'll bet you have found a way to make it work for you. Help him channel his energies into being productive and successful at what he loves.


Sleep & Nap Issues: Bed Wetting... For How Long?

Dear Dr. Heather, I have a seven-year-old who has peed in his bed forever. I have tried numerous attempts to get him to stop, like waking him up to go, buying him a night lamp, etc. However, none of these have worked, and now I am thinking it might be psychological, or that maybe something is happening to him and I don't know about it. Whenever I ask him why he wets his bed, his only answer is "I don't know". Can you help me? The medical doctors have ruled this out as "normal" and tell me that one day he will stop, but WHEN??? Thank you for your time.

In desperate need of help,


Hi Gabby,

I know it's hard, but bedwetting is common and fairly normal for a lot of kids this age, especially boys. There seems to be a genetic component, as well. It's important to not get into shaming him or trying to control the wetting....you have to leave it up to him. He should wear big-kid size pullups and be responsible (or at least help with) changing sheets when necessary, but the motivation to be dry has to come from him. Leave him in the nighttime pullups until he's dry consistently, so there's no pressure or worry about it.

They have those "bell and pad" things that go off when the kid pees, but it seems like they only serve to wake up the rest of the household, EXCEPT the kid himself....since bedwetters usually sleep really deeply. In fact, some doctors think that bedwetters' brains are a little different, in terms of their ability to transition between sleep and wakefulness. Bedwetters may simply not have developed the ability to awaken yet from sleep in order to go to the bathroom. This ability usually develops over time, though.

In later childhood, by about age 7, bedwetters may start to worry about what others think of them, and feel upset that they can't control their bodies at night. Reassure these kids that you will help them to do what it takes to eventually gain nighttime control; help them restrict fluids after 6pm, make sure they empty their bladder right before bed, and limit nighttime sweets, which can have a dehydrating effect. Getting a little extra sleep at night, even as little as 30 minutes more, can help for some. You can also keep trying to awaken him a couple of hours after going to bed to have him empty his bladder. But this should only be done with the child's cooperation and agreement. Let them know that you have faith in their bodies, and their ability to gain nighttime dryness when they are ready. And try to eliminate sources of shaming or ridicule. He's doing the best he can, and shame only worsens the problem.

We worry more about trauma, a medical condition or psychological stuff when there is an abrupt change...as in, they USED to be dry, and NOW...it has suddenly changed. But if he has always more or less been wet at night, and if there are no other indications in his daytime life that things are amiss...well, then, it looks like you're just gonna hafta be patient.

Of course, for something like this, you always need his pediatrician's blessing that nothing else is wrong, but other than that, all I can do is assure you that it WILL stop.

Let us know when that happens, we'd like to hear how it goes!

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink