Modeling Empathy in Parenting

A guest post by Melinda Blank

mom_holding_child_handOne day last year, when I came to pick up my son from kindergarten, I was shocked by what I found. A friend of his, a normally sweet boy with dark curly hair and a mischievous grin, was sitting on top of a smaller boy, laughing. The boy was crying and clearly struggling to get up. My son, as I’ll never forget, was standing next to his friend, a smile on his face.  My jaw dropped open.

Without thinking twice, I rushed instinctively over to my son, took his arm, and began marching him towards the exit.

“What were you doing?! Why was Peter sitting on that boy like that? Is that what you do when you see a friend crying – laugh? We’re going right home, young man, and we’re gonna have a talk about this!” All the way home, I lectured my son. I preached to him about the importance of respecting other people’s feelings and about the need to help smaller kids who are being picked on; I went on and on about how I expected him to behave differently and about how surprised I was. I even told him a little story designed to help him understand the need for empathy in that kind of situation: what if you were the boy being sat on? How would that feel? What would you expect your friends to do?

Needless to say, much of what I said went right over my son’s head. All he knew was that his Mommy was angry at him, and that he had done something wrong. He felt terrible, and so did I.

It was only later on that day that I realized what a horrendous mistake I had made. I had squandered what could have been an outstanding opportunity to teach my son a positive, empowering lesson, and had turned it instead into a negative experience that left him no better equipped to handle such situations in the future.

A lack of empathy; a failure to empower

When I saw my son standing there smiling, I jumped to conclusions. I was so upset that I didn’t stop to think about what was going on from his point of view. What was the context? Did he see exactly what his friend was doing? Was he aware that the boy was crying, or did he think it was all a game? Rather than make an effort to see things from my son’s perspective and give him the benefit of the doubt, I superimposed my own adult interpretation of events on what was happening, and reacted accordingly.

Perhaps most importantly, I never took the time to ask him what he thought was going on. Pretty ironic: Rather than model empathy with my own behavior – the very value I had hoped to instill in him – I did exactly the opposite. I preached empathy, but displayed an appalling lack of it myself.

Similarly, instead of offering my son an alternative way of handling the situation, I lectured him. I explained to him what was wrong with what he had done, but never gave him any practical suggestions for how to handle it differently in the future. I let my anger take over, and simply reacted, without a clear view of what, exactly, I hoped to achieve.

Just imagine… The Emparenting! Approach

If I had been Emparenting – allowing the core values of empathy and empowerment to guide my parenting – I would have approached the whole situation very differently. Rather than lecture or scold, I would have gently taken my son’s hand and guided him through the interaction, showing him exactly what I expected of him, while giving him the clear and affirming message that I knew he wanted to do the right thing. I would have said something like: “Dan, look at your friend, John. He’s crying and really wants to get up. Come, let’s help him and figure out how to make him feel better!” Then, later on, when things calmed down, I would have initiated a discussion with my son, to explore his perspective on what had happened and to help him grapple with the issues that arose.

Emparenting! strives to provide parents with a practical approach for incoporating empathy and empowerment into routine, day-to-day interactions.  Just by remembering the Emparenting! mantra, and stopping to think about it for a few seconds before we react, we can improve our parenting by leaps and bounds and have a tremendously positive effect on our kids’ emotional development.