The Empathy Toy in Chatelaine

Have We Made Life Too Comfortable for Our Kids?

Lang recognizes that in wanting to give children better opportunities than previous generations had access to, parents are unwittingly “protecting” kids from the “positive formative experiences” that result from rising to the challenge of “physical, emotional, or mental” hardship.

“Watching [my son, my sister’s two kids, and one of their friends] play with the [Empathy Toy], I was struck again by how misguided it is to try to shelter children from all discomfort, or to present it as a negative rather than a challenge. Not only can they cope with a little discomfort when it’s framed as a challenge — especially a playful challenge — but they will build their confidence and stick-to-itiveness as they work through it. Kids who play with Ben-Ari’s toy don’t just develop empathy — they also foster resilience, collaboration, and creativity.”

“Those 'soft skills,' prerequisites for innovation, are more important now than ever before — and they’re increasingly difficult to nurture in our instant-gratification world of gaming and texting. Robin Wilson, a guidance counsellor at St. John’s High School in Winnipeg, told me some kids refuse to wear the blindfold when playing with the Empathy Toy — it makes them feel too vulnerable. Others get so irritated when they can’t assemble the toy with ease that they whip off their blindfolds and hurl the toy’s pieces across the room. Always on the lookout for a teachable moment, Wilson uses their reactions to encourage her students 'to take a temperature check' and rate their anger or frustration on a five-point scale. 'One, you’re happy and relaxed; five, you’re ready to explode and your brain has stopped working properly.' For her, the Empathy Toy is about developing not just empathy but self-regulation, by helping kids identify and manage their emotions so they can recognize when they’re escalating to three and can avoid hitting five and having a meltdown.”

Struggle by Design

Lang’s appreciation for a good challenge is evident in her fundamental description of the Empathy Toy, consisting of “two identical sets of five beautifully crafted wooden pieces with a range of textures, shapes, and configurations. There are cog and arrow shapes — some with grooves and notches, some with flat or textured surfaces, some with raised dots evocative of Braille. The pieces can be joined together in thousands of ways, but they don’t just glide together. You have to fiddle with them and jiggle them around. That’s by design: the point is for players to struggle a little bit.”

It’s clear that in order to prepare for the New World of Work that awaits them, kids need to practice pushing themselves outside their comfort zone. Aside from the Empathy Toy, Lang’s certain that tricky chores and difficult homework are responsibilities that ultimately help equip kids for real life, and that the leniency towards these tasks by overprotective parents in recent years is actually weakening kids’ coping skills and increasing their anxiety.

As Lang so frankly phrases it, “if you cannot tolerate discomfort, you cannot get better at things that are difficult. You cannot achieve your own goals. You cannot grow.”

Read the full excerpt from Amanda Lang’s Beauty of Discomfort in Chatelaine Magazine