Teaching my children to be more empathetic has been one of my greatest parenting challenges. To let you in on a little secret, empathy remains a challenge for me. I’m often so caught up in a laundry list of thoughts and ideas that I fail to be considerate.
My husband, on the other hand, has an uncanny ability to understand everyone’s point-of-view.
Sharing your life with a highly empathetic person is both a blessing and a curse. While you may grow as a person, you’re basically the de-facto ass. I’m usually the one at fault in arguments, and the one who has something to regret when they’re over.
Sixteen years with my husband and becoming a mother twice over has made me more aware of how my words and actions will affect others. Like learning the piano or a foreign language, I’m practicing empathy.
It has made my life much happier and more fulfilling, but again and again, I see my oldest daughter, B, reacting to situations the same way I would have as a child. Seeing my flaws repeated in my daughter is both frustrating and heartbreaking. The challenge remains teaching her empathy without losing my own.
Use Narcissism as a Tool
Small children are usually narcissistic. That’s ok. In time, kids learn that the world doesn’t revolve around them. However, sometimes narcissism crosses the line to hurtful behavior.
When B was two and half, she choked another toddler in her daycare. We got called into the director’s office and sat there dumbfounded as they explained how B had wrapped her hands around another child’s neck and pulled.
They were obviously concerned. The incident was completely unprovoked, and she didn’t even seem mad at the time.
Was she watching inappropriate TV?
Could see be modelling something she saw?
Translation: Are you two violent with each other or your child.
When we returned home that evening, I asked B, “Why did you put your hands on your friend’s neck?”
Her answer: “I wanted to see if his head would come off like my Lego Elmo’s.”
Makes total sense, until I realize she was trying to decapitate a peer. Was I messing up royally as a parent or was this normal? Did she have deep-seated physiological issues or was this typical behavior with a dose of impulse control issues? Years from now, would Investigation Discovery be interviewing the daycare staff about B’s early years? Was I overreacting? Yes.
What alarmed me most with this incident—other than concern for the other child—was her complete lack of empathy. I explained to B that people’s heads do not pop on and off like Legos, and that we should never put our hands on someone’s neck because it could hurt them.
She said, “Ok, Mommy.”
“How do you think your friend felt when you did that?” I asked, unconvinced she understood the gravity of her action.
She looked at me puzzled and tugged on her own neck. “That hurts,” she said.
She never choked someone again. More than being told not to attempt to pull her friend’s head from his shoulders, she had to understand, from her own point of view, that it hurt.
The first step I’ve taken toward teaching empathy is being empathetic with my children. It’s the same reason I eat vegetables and try to express body positivity.
I’m far from perfect, but when I fail, I apologize. We talk about how I made them feel. When the girls are angry with each other, I remind them how they felt when I wasn’t as kind as I should be.
In many ways, my youngest daughter, E, has proven to be a better teacher to B than I could ever hope to be. As oblivious as B can be to the wellbeing of her peers, she watches her little sister like a mother hen. It was downright shocking to watch her treat an infant with such gentle adoration less than a year after she put her peer in a choke hold.
As E has grown to a toddler, B’s capacity for empathy has expanded exponentially. I’ve seen her tell other children to be careful with her little sister when they are playing together in the playground. She often lowers her volume when she speaks to E and uses a singsong “mommy voice”.
I believe all this big-sister kindness has shaped E into an incredibility compassionate individual. As soon as E could talk in complete sentences she’d ask “You ok, Sissy?” whenever B stubbed her toe or expressed any sort of frustration.
Praise the Positive and Keep Trying
I try to catch my girls being empathetic and reinforce the behavior. I’ve found it’s more beneficial to identify the times they or someone else models empathy (or any other good behavior) than to always criticize.
As we practice empathy, they will have moments of selfishness and so will I. My hope is that, overtime, our first instinct becomes kindness.
I do believe that some children, like adults, are naturally more aware of others. But, while we may not be virtuosos of compassion at birth, with a little effort, we can squeak out enough to be a positive force in the world.