How Heavy is Your Backpack? An Exercise in Empathy For School Age Kids


The end of the school year can be tough. As parents, we feel like we’re crawling to the finish line. We’re so close, but there’s still so much to be done before we close the books on another year. For kids, it can be a bit of a mixed bag of emotions.

They look forward to summer. More time for fun and less work to be done. Long summer days that fade to night. Swim-soaked hair and watermelon dripping down chins. They long for summer long before summer arrives, it seems, but they also feel sad or nervous about the end of the year. It’s hard to say goodbye to a teacher and a class full of friends.

The other day at school pickup I noticed a lot of tired faces. They’ve worked hard all year and they’re tired. They’re ready for a break. He cheated! You cheated! That’s not the rule! I don’t want to play! The little arguments feel big and important. Hard moments seem to crop up at every turn.

When the complaints roll in, it can be tempting to blame the other child. Believe me, I understand. I know the feeling – the child retells the story and you just want to jump into the past and fix the problem for them! You clench your fists because you just can’t imagine that kids argued so passionately about kickball… again.

You might even caution your child to just stay away from the kid who keeps calling him a cheater. Just stay away. Avoid the child – avoid the problem.

As hard as it can be, I try to focus on empathy when these stories come home. First, I listen to my child. I empathize and provide compassion. I let my child talk it out. Later, I revisit the situation and talk about empathy for others.

“The heavy backpack” is an empathy project I’ve been doing with kids for years. It helps them think about how others feel and learn the art of perspective taking. It’s simple but powerful.

How heavy is your backpack?

We all carry emotions with us. For kids, it can be useful to think about the image of carrying an invisible backpack stuffed with our feelings. Many kids tend to be “stuffers” by nature. It’s hard to talk about feelings, and many kids don’t have a well-developed feelings vocabulary. They stuff their feelings until they explode.

Kids can identify with the process of stuffing a backpack. When it’s light, you hardly notice it’s even there. When it gets too full, it’s hard to lift. When it’s so full that you can’t possibly fit one more thing in it, you can’t even push it from place to place.

When kids stuff their feelings, it’s like shoving them into a backpack. At first, it might feel only a little bit heavier than usual. Over time, the weight of the backpack drags them down.

They struggle to concentrate. They feel overwhelmed, anxious or even depressed. They might cry, yell or have a complete meltdown. The feelings, once stuffed safely inside the invisible backpack, suddenly become too big too carry and they spill out – everywhere.

The only way to cope with them is to work through them, but I find that many kids don’t have that opportunity. Often, they are told to “move on” or “get over it”. What they internalize is this: Your feelings don’t matter. This isn’t important.

Their feelings are important, though, and the only way to help them work through those big emotions is to empty that backpack, one feeling at a time.

Unpack the backpack.

What am I getting at? Why should we talk about invisible backpacks? Talking about those backpacks we all carry (but don’t always acknowledge) helps kids develop empathy for others. When they recognize what they carry in their own backpacks, they can begin to think what other people might carry in theirs. Instead of reacting quickly when something goes awry, they can think about how the other person might be feeling and make a positive choice.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Place an empty backpack on your child’s back and ask him how it feels. Ask him if he can jump up and down with it on.
  • Explain the invisible backpack. Talk about times when you stuff your own feelings and what that feels like.
  • Get some wooden blocks or other heavy objects and explain that these will represent the feelings we stuff.
  • Pick up a block, assign a feeling to it (ex: I felt super frustrated when I got stuck in traffic and was late to my meeting, I’m worried about a friend who isn’t feeling well, etc.) and place the block in the backpack. Do a few more and toss them in.
  • Ask your child to think of things that weigh him down – stuff that happens that he tries not to think about but still make him feel mad, worried or any other feeling (Ex: I didn’t know my spelling words, sometime said I cheated in soccer, I couldn’t sit with my friends at lunch). Have him add his blocks to the backpack.
  • Ask your child to try to think about feelings that might weigh his friends down. Talk about those things and add some blocks to the backpack.
  • Have your child try on the backpack full of blocks. Ask him how it feels now that it’s stuffed. Ask if he can jump up and down.
  • Explain that this is how people feel when they carry around big emotions. This is why we don’t always make the best choices and sometimes we overreact or say things we wish we didn’t.
  • Ask your child what he can do to be a helper if it seems like a friend might have a heavy backpack. How can he get help if his own backpack gets too heavy?

Talk about empathy.

A few weeks ago I asked 21 first grade students if they knew the meaning of empathy. Only two kids raised their hands. One of them was my son.

I hear a lot of talk about the importance of empathy of kindness, but I often find that kids don’t actually know what empathy means. If they don’t understand it, how can they practice it?

Talk about empathy with your kids. Discuss what it means and how they can be empathic friends. We can’t just expect kids to understand and practice empathy without first providing information and guidance. When we take the time to teach, they grow into empathic and compassionate citizens.

The next time your child comes home full of big feelings about the events of the day, get out the backpack and blocks and rely on empathy to help him work through his feelings.

For more great strategies to teach empathy and help kids work through their feelings, please check out THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK.

What is the Common Core Missing?


Lessons in kindness, that’s what.

With so much emphasis on accelerated learning and racing to the top (of what, exactly?), our education system seems to be forgetting one essential lesson:  Kids need to learn how to relate.  They need to learn about things like compassion, empathy, and kindness.  And while some of that can certainly be taught at home, kids spend 6+ hours at school each day.  It should be addressed there, as well.

Go ahead, work on those standards.  But for the love of children everywhere…add a few standards for social competency.  It’s important.

Stop by to read more about it.

On Redefining Happiness…



The Making Caring Common Project released some very interesting research last week, and if you haven’t seen it you should really take a look.  Titled “The Children We Mean to Raise: The Real Messages Adults Are Sending About Values”, the results of the survey eye-opening.  Bottom line:  You might think that you prioritize prosocial behaviors such as empathy, kindness, and being a caring person, but there’s a significant chance that what your child is internalizing is that you want her to be successful.  In fact, only 19% of the youth surveyed (from all over this country) picked “caring” as a priority for their parents.

I hear a lot about kids being “overindulged” or “not having enough responsibility” today.  But this isn’t about chores or too much designer clothing.  This about core values.  This is about the race to nowhere overwhelming our children.  They work hard to succeed in school, on the field, and just about everywhere else, until they pass out from exhaustion and do it all over again.  Kids are being pushed to succeed at all costs, and prosocial behavior and kind and caring character seem to top the lists of costs.

The good news is that it’s always a good time to work on character building.  We have the ability to send better, more positive, messages to our kids every single day.  But it has to start at home, and it has to be a daily effort.

  • Talk about what it means to demonstrate kind and caring behavior.
  • Learn about positive role models – both historical figures and people making a difference today.
  • Choose a family community service project to work on throughout the next year and see it through.
  • Use kind and caring language in your home.
  • Build each other up every single day.  Bad days happen, but there is always something good to highlight (no matter how small).
  • Eat meals together as much as possible and talk as a family.
  • Encourage expression of emotions and teach your children how to cope with negative emotions.
  • Three words:  Family game night.
  • Put down the technology and connect on a human level.  We are moving too fast and glossing over the good stuff.  Reconnect as much as possible.  Model healthy use of technology for your kids and be the kind of parent who isn’t afraid to set limits.
  • Be empathic.  Every.  Single.  Day.

There are endless ways to model and teach kindness and caring and I would love to hear all of yours.  I would also love to have you stop by The Huffington Post to check out “7 Ways to Redefine Happiness and Raise Kind and Caring Kids”.

See you there!

5 Tips for Raising Positive Thinkers


Some kids are naturally more optimistic than others.  Some kids just seem to approach all tasks, no matter how difficult, with a smile and a can-do attitude,  But others…others might seem a little more pessimistic or quick to throw in the towel when the going gets tough.  That doesn’t mean that those kids are quitters.  What it means is that they need a little help along the way.

It helps to consider why some kids immediately start chanting, “I can’t…” or “I’m not good at…” when things aren’t working out as planned.  For many kids, it comes down to a few issues:

Fear of failure.


Fear of disappointing others.

Low self-esteem.


Low frustration tolerance.

It’s not easy to be a kid, and some kids have huge ideas…the kind of ideas that might be just out of reach when it comes to developmental level.  That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try.  Sure, you want your kids to set age-approriate goals so that they can succeed along the way.  But you also want them to reach a little so that they can begin to understand the importance of practice, patience, and learning from mistakes.

So how can you turn an “I can’t” kid into a can-do kid?  With a little bit of patience and a lot of positive energy.

Reframe it first:

If you have a kid who regularly declares defeat before even digging into whatever project takes center stage at the moment, chances are you have a little perfectionist on your hands who can’t stand the thought of failure.  And the only way to truly avoid failure is to quit before you actually give it a try (in the mind of a child, anyway).

Teach your child to reframe his negative thought immediately.  When my little perfectionist musician-in-training (not really, but in his five-year-old mind) throws up his hands in defeat the minute he forgets a song lyric, I give him a simple task:  “Flip it.”  The first few times I needed to be a little more specific, as in, “Let’s say something positive about what you can do instead of giving up right away.”  But now we’re down to two words.  Before we even discuss the issue at hand, I help him flip the negative thought into a positive.

Reframing negative thoughts helps break the cycle of giving up in frustration.  It retrains the mind to find one small positive to keep you going.  When there is a light at the end of the tunnel, you will fight to get to it.  If you all you see is darkness, you’re more likely to curl up and hide.

Look for obstacles:

Kids have a lower frustration tolerance and are more likely to become sad and upset when they are sleep-deprived, hungry, or sick.  Assess your child’s physical and emotional state before launching into a speech about following through and trying harder.  Major life lessons are often lost on exhausted, starving, and/or sick kids.

Often, a little snuggle time with mom or dad and a comforting snack can bring back the positive.


Remember that time that you cried for three hours after you struck out three times in one game?  Your little baseball player needs to hear that.  Or how about the time that you froze during the school play and completely forgot your lines until someone whispered them to you?  Your little actress might need to hear that one.  You get the point.  Empathize with your child.  Share your own childhood stories and talk about times that you felt the very same way.

When parents empathize with their children, their children feel understood and less alone in their frustration or sadness.  They also see that their parents survived those very big feelings and overcame whatever failure caused the negative feelings in the first place.  That can be very eye-opening for little kids.

Celebrate failure:

Ok, maybe don’t throw a party with balloons and streamers and cupcakes…but learn to find the positive in failure.  You know what the best part of failure is?  Learning something new.  Finding a new path.  Exploring a different option for the next time.  Have you updated to the iOS7 yet?  New path necessary.  They’re probably not sobbing in frustration at Apple headquarters, but you can bet they’re working on something better.

Kids need to learn that failure isn’t the end of the world.  But that’s not an easy task, so they need you to help them get there.  Remain calm.  Let them cry and yell and vent their feelings, but then help them find the silver lining.  Ask questions about what might have gone wrong in order to kickstart the problem-solving process.

And learn to laugh about, own up to, and share your own failures along the way.  We all make mistakes and we don’t always get it right on the first (or second, or third) try.  When we show kids that we also struggle at times, they learn that it’s ok to get back up and try again…that perfect doesn’t actually exist.

Model it:

If you want your kids to have a positive attitude, you have to have one, too.  Watch your words, body language, and mannerisms around your kids.  You might think they’re not paying attention when you’re venting to another mom at school before the bell rings, but they usually are.  Save the venting for a time when the kids aren’t around, and rely on a positive attitude in front of your kids as much as humanly possible.

When you keep your emotions in check and use adaptive coping strategies to work through difficult tasks (deep breathing, taking a quick walk, frequent breaks, asking for help, a cup of tea) your kids learn the importance of learning to work through their feelings while tackling difficult tasks.

How do you help your kids stay positive?

5 Tips for Teaching Empathy

Opportunities to practice empathy are everywhere.


Opportunities to practice empathy can be found in nature, in books, during TV shows, at the park, and in the home.


Empathy is the ability to understand and experience the feelings of others, and to respond in helpful ways.


Some children seem to develop empathy more naturally than others, but all children need to be taught this critical skill.


Children who are empathic will be better able to cope with conflict and difficult social situations.


Children who are empathic will be less likely to engage in bullying behavior, and more likely to jump in and help a friend or peer who is being bullied.


Children who are empathic are more likely to grow into well-adjusted adults with adaptive coping skills.


It’s never too early, or late, to start teaching empathy to your children.  Why not start today?


5 tips for building empathy in your child:


1.    Model:  The best way to teach empathy is to model empathy.  Pick your child up when he falls, label his feelings and let him know that you’ve felt that way too, and listen to your children.  Instead of walking away from that temper tantrum, stay calm and talk your child through it.  When children see you respond to difficult situations with empathy, they will internalize those behaviors and learn to do the same.

2.    Meet their Emotional Needs:  Kids are more likely to develop empathy when their emotional needs are being met at home.  Yes, parenting can be trying at times, and kids have emotions that shift by the hour.  But they need to feel heard and helped when things are hard.  When children have secure attachments with their parents, they are more likely to show empathy toward others.  Give them the gift of security.

3.    Teach Feelings Identification:  You teach them how to get dressed, you teach them how to put on their shoes, and you teach them how to brush their teeth.  But have you taught them how to identify their feelings?  Label their feelings for them (positive and negative) so that they can connect feelings words with emotional reactions.  It’s nearly impossible to understand how another person feels if you can’t even understand how you feel.  Try a few games.  Mirror, Mirror:  Make feelings faces in the mirror with your child and try to guess what each face depicts.  Talk about times that you’ve felt that way.  Did you know that you actually experience emotions just by play-acting them?  It’s true.  Feelings Charades:  A great game for family game night!  Take turns acting out and guessing various feelings.  Use books and TV to your advantage.  Observing Feelings:  Don’t just read through a book quickly or sit quietly through an episode of Franklin…point out the facial and other non-verbal cues and try to identify the feelings.  You will be reading the books and taking TV breaks anyway, why not make them a learning experience?

4.    Teach Responsibility:  Kids who have responsibilities tend to be more empathic and caring.  Give your child a specific job, allow your child to care for a small pet, and get involved in family community service projects.  When children are taught to be responsible, they learn to think about others.

5.    Teach Problem-Solving Skills:  It’s tempting to solve every problem for our little ones.  We usually have a solution, after all.  But if we solve every problem, we rob them of the opportunity to learn a critical life skill.  Teach your children to Stop-Think-Act.  Stop:  Assess the situation and determine the problem.  Think:  Consider possible solutions.  Will sharing a toy make my friend feel better?  Act:  Choose the best option and put it into action.  When children know how to problem solve, they are more likely to jump in and help a friend or sibling.


Opportunities to teach empathy are everywhere.  Don’t let another one slip away…


How do you teach empathy?

Snap Judgments

It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating:  There is no rulebook for this parenting gig.  There are theories, strategies, baby whisperers, and 411 for just about every age group, but there is no rulebook.

There is no perfect way to parent.

There are no perfect parents.

There are no perfect kids.

Let’s make a deal, you and me; let’s stop focusing on perfect.

Perfect leads to snap judgments.  If one parent is perfect, then countless others must be imperfect.  This leads to competition.  And probably a few more snap judgments….

Please stop by Mommy Moment to continue reading “Snap Judgments”.