How an Empathy Upgrade is a Valuable Parenting Skill
February 12, 2021
I am a mom of three amazing children. They are creative, intelligent, loving, and fun. They are also sensitive, loud, obnoxious, and demanding. As a parent, I walk a tight rope as I manage rules, emotions, and the ins and outs of our everyday controlled chaos. As I seek to find balance, empathy is my most impressive superpower. Let me explain.
First a Definition
Have you ever heard the expression – walk a mile in another man’s shoes? This is empathy. According to our friend Google, empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. Tapping into the feelings of another person can help you understand why they do the things they do. Empathy is a valuable skill in all our relationships but becomes an all-out superpower when used with our children.
Parenting with Empathy
Children are not miniature adults. They have child sized feelings, perspectives, and actions. The logic of a child will likely not match the logic of an adult. As parents we need to take the time to see situations from our child’s perspective, rather than ruling over them with absolute power. I am not referring to situations with clear lines, things that are right or wrong. We don’t run into the street after the ball. No need for a discussion. Rules that keep us safe are not the time to break out the empathy. Let me share a recent example.
The Saga of the Loose Tooth
My children are absolutely terrified of losing teeth. They prefer to leave them alone until they literally fall out of their mouths all on their own. Both my oldest and middle child follow this routine. The problem is loose teeth start to hurt when they are flopping around hanging on by a thread. Which leads us to the drama filled saga of Thursday morning with my eight-year-old child.
My darling child came downstairs with a look that said, “The World is Coming to an End!”. I asked what was up and she showed me a tooth hanging on by an absolute thread. It hurt. I offered to help pull it out so it wouldn’t hurt anymore. She ran from me into the bathroom and told me to leave her alone. So what did I do?
I marched right into the bathroom and demanded she let me help. My daughter began to cry and tell me it was scary and she did NOT want me to touch her. I started to force the issue, this is silly after all; I could handle the situation in 10 seconds. Then I stopped and took a step back. How is she feeling right now versus the quick, logical fix?
How the Saga Ends
My daughter was scared. She did not want me to touch her. My child asked me to give her space to do it on her own. When I took a moment to see the situation from her perspective, I stopped pressing to take control. I stepped back and she sat on the floor of the bathroom for over an hour trying to build up the courage to pull her own tooth out. Did this make sense to me? Absolutely not! But if I was having the same feelings, I would want them respected. I kept checking in, offering my help. The kiddo turned me down over and over. Eventually, she made the decision to go about her day and ignore her tooth. Later in the afternoon, she wiggled it out all on her own. No tears. No drama.
Parenting with empathy does more than respect our child’s feelings and boundaries, it also models empathetic behavior. Everything we do is a model for our children of how they should act out in the world. I don’t know about you, but I think the world NEEDS more empathy. Our children learn from us, let’s teach them that the feelings and perspectives of others matter. We can raise the generation that welcomes multiple perspectives and solves problems from multiple angles. It all starts with empathy.
Empathy over Easy
Taking the empathetic route is not necessarily the easy one. Going back to the tooth saga, we do not always have an hour to figure out our next move. Parents, it takes skill to be empathetic and still keep the train moving forward. I am human. I don’t do it right every time. We come back to the parenting tight rope, finding a balance that allows for empathy and logic. Sometimes we need to say, “I see this makes you sad, but we have to do it mommy’s way. You can be sad, but I need you to listen to mommy.”
We can acknowledge emotions as legitimate, but still push our agenda. Going back to the tooth story, in other circumstances I would have given options and guidelines – You have 5 minutes to decide if 1) I am pulling the tooth out, 2) you are pulling the tooth out, 3) We are going to move on with our day and worry about the tooth later. Then we set the timer. In this scenario I acknowledge the feelings, allow space for her to decide, and still move us forward with the agenda of the day.
Embrace Your Superpower
Take the time to upgrade your empathy and embrace it as the superpower it is. Model empathy to your children as you parent them with understanding and love. Not only will your child know you respect their emotions, they will learn to respect other people’s emotions and ideas as they grow into adults.