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Empathy is one of the single most important tools for us mamas to master. In my opinion, it preserves our connection with our kiddos while teaching them incredibly valuable life lessons.
Love and Logic
I first came across the idea of using empathy with kids while I was studying to be a teacher. Part of our classroom management class included ideas from Love and Logic, a resource for teachers and parents that focuses on positive interactions with children. I loved the ideas so much that I implemented them in my classroom and now use them with my own kids.
Recently, I saw something they posted that stated:
Empathy allows the child’s poor decision to remain the bad guy while you remain the good guy.
This is so true! Empathy allows us to set clear expectations for our children, witness when those expectations are not met and then meet that ‘failure’ with empathy. Recently, this is what empathy looks like with one of my children.
A personal example
My son recently had a problem controlling his emotions at the store after we were not able to get one of the kiddy carts that he enjoys so much. I love them, too, even if it’s like driving a train. But all my kids can fit on it and while we have to mutter apologies as we guide that monster through the store, it makes shopping with all four kids smoother. So, I tried to find one but couldn’t, so we had to move on with a regular cart. This meant that the three older kids had to walk while the toddler got to ride in the boring, regular cart.
After my son continued to cry and wail and yell, I reminded him that each kid was picking out a treat at the end of this quick stop. I do my best not to threaten so I try to say things similarly to this: “I am happy to get a treat for each child that is not whining.” After all, this is the only part of the deal I can control. I cannot control how my child will act. But I can control who I buy a treat for. It is also a positive statement rather than a negative one. And that feels better for everyone!
Well, my sweet boy continued on and on right up until we were picking out treats. As he was not able to get one, he barely missed a beat as his crying turned from being about the cart we didn’t get to the fact that he didn’t get to pick out a treat.
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My empathetic response was this (all the way through the store, at the check out and then on the drive home): “Man, I’m so bummed you didn’t get a treat also. That’s really hard. It’s really too bad you made the choice to whine and yell instead of pick out a treat. I’m sure that doesn’t feel good at all. I bet next time you can make a different choice that allows you to get to pick out a treat. We all have hard days and I know you can do it next time.”
The key: empathize with your child about the bad choice, the consequence, etc. Feel it with them. Encourage them through it. Tell them how you know they can make a better choice next time.
Keep the problem out in front of the two of you, not between you. Focus on what you can control, not on controlling your child’s behavior. I hate to break it to you, but that is a uphill battle that no one wins in the end, anyways.
Your sweet little dumplings will give you so many opportunities to practice empathy until you are a full blown expert! Eat it up! Take every opportunity you are given to lay on empathy. Instead of yelling or ending up speaking to your kids in a way that causes them to feel guilt and shame, speak to them in this way and watch your connection grow.
Some other examples
When a child doesn’t pick up their room after being asked, you can respond with empathy about their poor choice. I may say something like this,
“Oh man. I’m so bummed you chose not to clean your bedroom like I asked you to. As I mentioned before, I am happy to take anyone who got their room cleaned by 3pm to the park. You chose not to do this so you’ll have to stay home with your dad while the rest of us go.”
I use this with other, more regular types of situations, too. This might include something like not being able to watch a show with the other kids or play outside. Sometimes I will even purposefully let the other kids do something that the child who made the poor choice will have to miss out on.
I do this not to be mean, but because I firmly believe that my home is the safest place for my children to make mistakes. We can practice these things so that when they are on their own and the stakes are much higher (not making a deadline from a boss, not making a payment on time), they have practiced making good choices a million times already.
They will have also experienced the discomfort of the consequences of their poor choices when those consequences include missing out on play time instead of losing a job.
When one sibling hits or is physically rough with another, I usually say something like, “Gosh, it looks like you are having a hard time showing kindness to your sister. It’s so much more fun when we can all be together, but it looks like you need to take a break in your room. When you are ready to be kind and more gentle, please join us again.”
I rarely send a kid to their room for a set amount of time. 99% of the time I allow the child to come out whenever they are ready to make the situation right. This might be 1 minute or 10 minutes. I don’t care how long it took for them to have a change of heart, I just care that it happens.
This also gives them control over their behavior. When they are ready to control themselves and make the conscious choice to change their behavior, they get to join us. This is not about punishment. It’s about using empathy and natural consequences to teach.
Telling the truth and trust
When one of my kiddos chooses not to tell me the truth, I have a deeply empathetic response. This is because this one literally breaks my heart. So, my response is “Wow. You just made a choice not to tell me the truth. That really makes me sad. It makes me sad because I love you so much and I want us to have a close relationship. When you choose not to tell the truth that puts distance in between us because I cannot trust you. I want to trust you. For that, I need you tell me the truth at all times, even when it’s hard. And when you choose to tell the truth, I promise to respond with love no matter what you tell me.”
At times, I also include something about the fact that lying to me makes it harder for me to give freedom to that child because of the broken trust, so some sort of limitation or consequence is put into place as a repercussion.
Overall, I have found that choosing to respond to my children’s mistakes with empathy rather than anger preserves our connection. It makes the poor choice the bad guy and reminds my child that I am their biggest fan, no matter what!