Helping children see different perspectives

Posted Apr 01, 2016

My last essay, how to defuse a dispute, discussed five different tactics for de-escalating arguments. Each of the tactics depended on perspective-taking — the ability to see a dispute from the other side.

It’s easy to explain why perspective taking is important, and it’s relatively easy to formulate methods that should help, but the hard part is personal: being able to imagine a viewpoint other than our own. Some people are very concrete thinkers and just can’t do the hypothetical thinking needed to try on a different set of assumptions. Some people are so competitive that they lock into their views and can’t let go, even for a few moments. Others are used to seeing the world using right/wrong good/bad dichotomies, and are uncomfortable imagining that their opponents might have some valid reasons for their views. So this suggestion to take the adversary’s perspective can be very difficult to carry out.

Maybe the perspective-taking skill is something we can introduce to children. Not young children, but teenagers and even pre-teens. That way they’ll be ready when they become adults, ready to sympathize and empathize and cooperate.

Here’s a game I played with my daughters as they were growing up. I started when they were about 8 and 11. We’d be having dinner, and we’d get into a friendly argument, and if I was losing (which was often the case — I tended to take extreme positions just to keep the discussion exciting), and my daughters were grinning because they had me cornered, I would hold up my hand and say “Switch!” The game was for them to immediately change positions and argue for my point of view, and I’d have to argue theirs. My wife Helen was supposed to be a neutral observer but usually became a cheerleader when the daughters argued my original views better than I had.

My daughters got very good at this game — they were actually better than I was. Once the “Switch!” was thrown, they had no hesitation in making a 180-degree turn. They might initially groan because they were just about to win the debate, but they relished the challenge of doing a better job of presenting my viewpoint than I had. And they occasionally called “Switch!” themselves, to keep me on my toes. Anyone could call "Switch!" and it had to be without warning.

I think it helped that we used the “Switch!” game for impersonal arguments, such as social and political issues. Later on, when the Switching was ingrained in our family culture, we occasionally used it on personal conflicts.

Did the “Switch!” game make any difference? I don’t know. But my younger daughter Rebecca once described a class project to interview people in the community about different social issues. Rebecca and her partner chose the topic of abortion, and were given a list of people who were pro-life or pro-choice. Both girls were advocates for choice. Rebecca’s friend recoiled at the notion of interviewing anyone with anti-abortion views. In contrast, Rebecca was excited by the chance to hear the other side, so that’s how they split the list, with the friend talking with people who held the same views that she did, and Rebecca interviewing the pro-life advocates. I don’t think the Switch! game we played was responsible for Rebecca’s choice but it may have given her the enthusiasm for encountering a perspective that seemed incomprehensible.

So I asked my older daughter, Devorah, what she thought of the game. Without hesitation, she explained her firm conviction that “Switch!” helped her become the professional she is today. She feels that she has an edge over others in her profession — design research — because the “Switch!” game helped her learn how to quickly and smoothly decenter and take another perspective. 

These are just anecdotes. I don’t have any evidence about the effectiveness of the Switch! game. If you try this out with your children or with others, I hope you will make some useful discoveries.