Empathy is the ultimate way to connect to someone. Having empathy for someone is the ability to put yourself in their shoes. Alfred Adler said “To see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another, to feel with the heart of another,” was a definition for “social feeling” which is really another way of saying empathy. If we can sense the world through another’s senses then we really are tuned in and connected to that person.
In the child/parent relationship world, this means that the parent is looking beyond words and trying to understand the meaning of the words. The child who, after school, says, “Mommy, I don’t want to play with XXX ever again,” may have had an experience which may or may not have had nothing to do with howXXX interacted with your child. Maybe XXX got picked to do her show and tell at school and not your child, maybe XXX played with someone else as recess or maybe XXX wiggled too much on the carpet during story time and the teacher had to speak to him/her. So how do you reply when you don’t know what lies at the root of this comment? Well there’s always just plain “Hmmm, I see.” This is a neutral comment that shows the child that you’ve heard, are not judging and it also does not relay any information about what YOU think may be going on for the child. This may spark a long explanation of why XXX is in the bad books right now. Another option is to guess at the meaning behind what the child is saying. “It sounds like you’re not very happy with XXX right now.” “No, I’m not Mom. You’ll never guess what XXX did! ………..” and of he/she goes giving you all the details. Rest assured that if you haven’t gotten it right, your child will correct you!
So now, you’ve just heard that XXX wiggled too much while sitting on the carpet and the teacher had to talk to XXX about it. I know you would love to launch into a talk about how this is between XXX and the teacher and should not affect him/her and certainly not their relationship – but DON’T!! Say instead, “You don’t like it when one of your friends gets into trouble at school,” and then sit back and see where this takes you.
Okay, so this is a made up example; how is this empathy, you ask? Well, the parent in the above example did not impose any of her adult views on what the child experienced and merely focused on the child’s view. We adults have experiences that colour how we see things. Let’s just say that you were excluded as a child and often had to play alone. Well, upon hearing that your child no longer wants to play with XXX, it may bring up all the old feelings associated with your experience. If you pay attention to the words your child has just uttered, rather than the meaning, you will more than likely react from your very “hurt child” place.
When we can see the world through our child’s eyes, we teach and model empathy. Kids are great imitators and they will imitate us. But let’s not forget, that we can’t expect them to always be empathic little beings because children of all ages really do believe that the world revolves around them. It’s all about baby steps, so that by the time their brains mature – at the ages of 25, these positive experiences will be integrated to be part of who they grow up to be.
It’s a long road but a worthwhile journey.