Before I had my first child, I logged 7 years experience working as a child therapist and parent educator so I was blessed with a lot of knowledge that many first time parents don’t have initially. I had many years to think of the type of parent I wanted to be and subjected my husband to lengthy conversations about how we would raise our child. For example, I had this vision of exclusively feeding my child organic locally grown food which we gathered from the farmers market each weekend as a family. (Ok, maybe this one came from just living on the west side of Los Angeles for 12 years). Flash forward 3 years later and I’m cleaning up crushed Goldfish off the kitchen floor and basically sustaining my toddler’s life with a steady stream of carbs.
So the food vision may have not worked out, but one vision that did is raising an empathic child. Empathy is most often described as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Not to be confused with sympathy which is feeling sorry or pity for someone. While it may not come as a surprise that children need to be empathized with in order to become an empathic person, I find that empathy is severely lacking in traditional parenting and lots of parenting advice. If you take a good look around social media or politics, I think you’ll see it is lacking in the world as well.
When a child trips and starts crying at the park, what is the most common thing a parent says? “You’re ok. It’s ok.”. I hear it all the time. Literally all the time. And yet that child is not ok. He may not be truly injured and you as the parent may be trying to let him now that he will be ok in the end but at the moment he is not ok. He may be hurt, startled, scared, or confused but it is up to him to decide. If I was walking with anyone I cared about and they tripped, I wouldn’t tell them they are ok or to get up and keep walking. I would check in on them, help them up, and probably mirror whatever emotion they were showing me.
You may be thinking, “Isn’t this going to create a bunch of whiny kids who cry over everything? I want my kid to learn to toughen up.” And to this, I’d say two things. Number one, it has been my experience that children who are empathized with are actually more secure in the world and are less apt to cry over every little thing. Number two, I believe crying is a normal human reaction and our job as parents is not to stop a feeling but rather to help our child sit with those feelings so they become familiar and not foreign. I want my child to know that I can handle all his feelings and I’ve got his back even at his worst.
Let’s talk tantrums for a moment. As the mother of a threenager, I am often the monster who had the audacity to cut a sandwich into squares rather than triangles. Sometimes it takes all the energy I have to breathe and try to see it from his perspective. And when I’m able to empathize with that feeling of disappointment, I find it actually helps calm me down and we are able to figure out a solution together. This is a daily practice in patience.
I am by no means a perfect parent and I miss the mark so many times with my children but I strive daily to try to empathize with them. My son at age 3 is now showing he has internalized some of these lessons and it is showing up in his interactions with his little sister. My baby girl detests her car seat, so she often starts crying before we even get the car started. My son has started saying “Maisy I know you don’t like your car seat but we don’t have to go too far. I’ll sit back here with you”. He talks sweetly to her as she cries and never tells her to stop crying. And in those moments my husband and I turn into big puddles of mush and just swoon over our sweet boy. Those are the moments you live for as a parent; the moments where you see little successes and realize you may not do everything right but you are raising a darn good little human.
If you’d like to read more about how to put this in action I suggest “Now Say This” by Julie Wright and Heather Turgeon, “The Whole Brain Child” by Dan Siegel, and “Peaceful Parents, Happy Child” by Laura Markham.