(The most important thing you can do, by the way, is eat a family dinner together).
Often my posts are about changes you can make when working with your children to help create a better life for you and them. But today, I’m going to talk a little bit behind the scenes with some “why’s” behind what we do.
Empathy is really such a cornerstone concept because it is super important for parents to have with their children and even more important skill for children to learn.
What is empathy? My husband said that it is knowing how other people feel. That in itself is correct, but it is so much more than that.
Empathy is understanding other people’s feelings and what is happening behind the feeling.
Empathy is putting yourself in other people’s shoes.
Let’s first talk about empathy, sympathy and compassion.
Empathy is understanding where someone is coming from. It is the why behind the actions or behavior.
Sympathy is either feeling the same emotion or being able to feel the same emotion.
Compassion is wanting to help someone who is in need.
All three of these are very important but the one that gets forgotten the most is empathy.
Here are some examples:
With the war in Syria, we have empathy for the refugees. We understand why they are leaving their country. We probably won’t be able to sympathize with them, unless we ourselves have had to leave our country under duress. We will most likely have compassion for them and want to help.
However, we may also have empathy for the countries who are not taking in the refugees. Why are they not helping? If we look at the “why” behind their behavior we might read that they don’t feel like they have the resources to take in all the refugees. They might even be afraid of what the future will look like with so many people who don’t have jobs or who speak the language. If we look at the why’s behind their behavior, we might have empathy for these countries. Even though I may not agree with these countries, I can understand where they are coming from. I myself wouldn’t have sympathy for these countries because I believe that I would feel differently. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we have compassion for these countries. If they are refusing entry to the refugees, they don’t deserve any compassion for their actions.
So the three are intertwined but can also be very separate. When empathy becomes the most difficult, but most important, is when we see behavior that is undesirable. In the first example, pretty much everyone would have empathy for the refugees, but in the second example, it is a bit more difficult to have empathy for countries refusing refugees entry. We have to dig deep to find some empathy and figure out where the behavior is coming from.
When we have empathy for our children, our conflicts de-escalate, our connection builds and we can solve problems without all the fussing and fighting that often happens with people don’t get their way.
If your child doesn’t get a toy that they want, you can empathize with that. They wanted something, they didn’t get it. That sucks. It sucks for us adults as well when we wanted a poppy seed bagel and we get to the bagel shop and they are all out. We can empathize. “You are bummed because you didn’t get that toy that you wanted.” We can sympathize, “I feel the same way when I don’t get something I want.” We can have compassion, “Would you like a hug?”
We also need to have tons of empathy when we are giving consequences. We may be angry with our children when their behavior is unacceptable, but it is wiser and more effective to give consequences with a big ol’ dose of empathy. Let’s say your one child has just smacked your other child after a particularly trying morning.
You can pick him up angrily and bring him into his room and say, “Don’t ever do that again!”
You can stop, say, “Uh oh. I can’t allow you to hit anyone. I know you wanted that toy, but you will have to go somewhere where everyone will be safe.” and carry him gently into his room.
And equally important as empathizing with our children is teaching them empathy.
How do we teach empathy?
First, we are empathetic with our children. Then, we teach them problem solving skills which include looking at other solutions (seeing where the other child is coming from). Thirdly, we talk about the why’s behind behavior.
For really young children, we can just point out the “why” behind the situation:
“Stop fussing! You both need to share!”
“Look, Eliza wants a turn with the toy, too.”
“Ugh, that child is so whiny.”
“Let’s give some of our snack to Melissa, I think she might be hungry.”
And for older children, it can be much more of a discussion:
Is someone bothering your child (a sibling or a child at school)? You can start the discussion with, “What do you think is going on?” “Do you think that the other child wants what you have?” “Do you think they might be lonely?”
When you look at the why’s behind the situation and help your child look at why someone is acting someway, then you are teaching them all about empathy.
Why does all this matter?
Just like blueberries are one of those super-foods, empathy is one of those super skills. Children and adults who have empathy end up having more friends, getting better jobs, are better bosses, have better relationships and so on. There is one caveat, however and that is that there is a study that says that the most powerful people in the world have less empathy than other people. So if you want your child to be a ruler and be able to get power with any means necessary, then don’t teach her empathy. But if you want her to be successful and happy, then use empathy yourself with your children and teach them how to be empathetic as well.