How to use roleplaying to teach empathy in kids

Hello from North Haven!

Here was the scene at my house the other night: My husband and I sat on the couch after dinner, while our three-year-old daughter Penrose shuttled back and forth to the book shelf.

“Ok babies! Here’s another story for you!” she said, cracking open book after book to “read” to us. After a few stories, she told us it was time for bed. She gave us each a kiss, and then mimed turning off the lights and turning on a white noise machine. My husband and I glanced at each other and smirked.

“Mama? Mama? Mommy? I just have five more questions for you before you leave,” I said, mimicking what Pen had said to me the other night as I tried to escape her bedroom. Pen sighed and rolled her eyes, then came back to the couch.

“What is it, baby?”

“I don’t want you to leave. Why do you have to leave?”

Penrose echoed my regular response back to me. “Because you don’t get good sleep when I’m in the room, and I have to do some work before I go to bed. Goodnight! I’m walking out now!” She gave me another kiss and started to tiptoe away. My husband had a turn calling her back. The game went on a for a while – Penrose acted out making us breakfast and getting us ready for school. We went a little over the top – but not much – with some of the behaviors we see from her when we try to do the same, from goofing around instead of getting dressed to having tantrums if there’s not enough honey in her oatmeal (in her opinion).

We all laughed a lot in our roleplay, but later that evening, as I kept Pen company in the bathroom, she turned to me and said, “You and daddy are such¬†frustrating babies!”


“Yes, we were. What were some of the things we did that were frustrating?” I asked, eager to keep the conversation going.

“You wouldn’t go to sleep, you kept interrupting me when I was trying to make my breakfast, and then you cried about your oatmeal. Why did you cry about your oatmeal?” she asked.

“Sweetheart, I ask myself that question a lot. How did it feel when daddy and I did that?”

“Not good. Frustrating! I was trying to get things done, and I couldn’t.”

“How do you think daddy and I feel when we’re trying to get things done, but you won’t let us?”

“…the same way?”

I nodded vigorously.

Making the same face as someone else could foster empathy too, right? Selfie by William Trevaskis.

That night’s bedtime routine was delightful. Penrose put on her pajamas, flossed and brushed without a hint of fuss or procrastination, which meant we had time for more leisurely reading and snuggling. Now, I might be putting too much weight on the roleplaying game, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Penrose’s turn as a parent made her a little more¬†willing to acquiesce to the tasks I asked her to complete to get ready for bed.

The role play’s effects weren’t long lasting, but there’s a lot of research on the power of role play to increase empathy for teens and adults, too. A few links to check out:

Teaching empathy through read-aloud and role play: tips for the classroom and at home

Can you feel me? Empathy through role play: something to try with older kids, too

Empathy scenarios: A resource from the Unitarian Universalist Association

While I hope to reap the benefits of games like this as a parent, I’m excited to use some of these activities to make Pen (and my students!) more compassionate and empathetic to people around her from all walks of life.


Courtney Naliboff

About Courtney Naliboff

In addition to this blog, I'm a contributing writer to, a Jewish parenting site, a blogger and book reviewer for, and the author of Salt Water Cure, a column in Working Waterfront. I report news from North Haven for Working Waterfront and Island Journal, and was a speaker at the Maine Conference for Jewish Life in 2015. Follow Frozen Chosen on facebook or visit my Web site for more writing and free music to download!