I recently had the privilege of hearing marriage family therapists Noah Kempler and his wife, Susan, give a presentation on Empathy and Authority. The presentation was informative, well researched, and clearly very helpful to all the parents in the room. Although I had many takeaways from the evening, what resonated most was the simple idea that "in order to have empathetic children, we must model empathetic behavior towards them." It is a sensible and simple idea, but something that parents can have a hard time implementing.
For example, I can empathize with my daughter when she is pushed or excluded on the playground, and I have empathy for my son when his feelings are hurt by friends' words. Empathy can be harder to activate when my son tells me he “hates me” or my daughter clings and cries for multiple hugs as the bell rings for school to start.
How do I model empathy when I don’t feel empathetic? And, what exactly is empathy?
Webster says, “Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Noah Kempler goes on to say, “Empathy promotes deep relationships, helps build emotional intelligence and insight, fosters cooperation, builds self-esteem, and allows for problem solving.”
I model empathy for my children when I acknowledge their feelings. Instead of yelling at my son to speak to me respectfully, I first let him know I understand he is upset. After I connect with him, I reinforce that it is not okay to speak to me harshly (Noah calls this technique “the arm of empathy and authority.” In Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen, a similar parenting approach is called “connect before you correct"). With my daughter, I communicate that I know she feels sad to see me go. Then, I quietly leave while letting her teachers transition her into the classroom. (I can also role-play with her ahead of time, as I know separation is hard for her).
The more understanding I give to my children, the better foundation they will have for displaying their own empathy. Empathy is a learned skill, not easily understood by young children. Researchers say empathy is first seen around age two, and by the time a child is four, he begins to associate his emotions with the feelings of others. https://psychcentral.com
One thing that helps me develop empathy for my children is having special time with them daily. I set aside 10 minutes to give each child my full attention, letting them lead me in an activity around the house that they choose. The more connected I feel to them, the easier it is to be empathetic when their behavior feels challenging, self-centered, or defiant later on.
Noah said it perfectly, “Childhood is about making mistakes.” All children fumble, act out, and test limits. We can be firm with them while still showing them empathy, compassion and love.