Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Practicing empathy with my children - two great ideas

I've heard it from other parents and I say it to myself. My kids drive me crazy sometimes.

"Put away your shoes ," I say. "No" they say back. Or I say, "Please go wash your hands, they are filthy." "No, they're not, I'm gonna go play." Etcetera. Every second of every day, over and over again, most conversations are arguments. The battlefield is our kitchen and every household chore hides a landmine. I'm getting back everything I ever said to my mother and I'm getting it in chorus (from both my girls, as they sing "I don't wanna do my home---work" to the tune of "Do you want to build a snow-man?").

A while ago I asked a friend of mine to write a guest post for us about building empathy in children. I asked her to write for me for two reasons; first, she's an expert with kids and parents. Second; I had no idea how to start building empathy for my own growing children. They were 6 and 2, at the time, and I was totally lost.

Ever since then I've been thinking about it; I've been reading articles and listening to podcasts, all trying to find a way to connect with them and to break the argument cycle. As my kids get older I think, are they ready? Can I try to build some empathy in them, or have empathy for them?

Recently, I came across a quick sequence of podcasts talking about empathy and kids, by Dr. Charles Ray of the Love & Logic Institute*.

RSS Feed for the podcasts.
Or click to hear Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 (each one is about 10 minutes long).

Dr. Fay is a little cheesy but he talks a good talk. He said:

- We lose our patience with our kids
- Losing our patience means we get mad, we get emotional, and
- When we yell, we hurt our relationship with our kids
- Breaking the argument cycle is about having that good relationship, and about building empathy 

I took two thoughts away from the podcast that have really, REALLY helped me to slow down the arguing and fighting. I don't do them all the time, but so far these two have brought a ton of empathy into my house.

"I love you too much to argue." If my child takes the fight to me ("No, I don't want to eat my vegetables.") I can fight back, sure. However, if I do fight back I'm telling them, "Yes, this is a problem between you and me". Instead of engaging them, I should pretend I'm just the messenger of the rule. I have to take myself out of the equation; I'm just the one letting them know what the rules are, and the consequences of those rules. In the end it's their problem to solve. I can help them solve it by having empathy for their situation, but it's not my job to convince them the rule is correct.

The sticky note technique. Let's say I want to remember to have empathy for my kids and not to argue with them. The idea is to pick an empathetic statement, and use it over and over again. If I need to, I can put the phrase on sticky notes and paste them up all around the house. Empathetic statements are things like, "Ohhhh, man. how sad." Or "Ohhhhh. I know." 


I've been using these two ideas together for about two weeks now, and I've been surprised how well they work.

I saw my 3-year old daughter get up from the table with all of her food left. I said, "What are you doing, you still have food in your bowl." She said, "I'm all done, I don't want anymore." I looked at her and I said, "Ohhhhh, I know. I know you don't want anymore." I just looked at her. She looked back. And miracle of miracles; instead of arguing, she just sat back at the table and ate her food.

Seriously! It worked really well! One empathetic statement cut the fight off at the knees.


As a parting thought; I know darn well that if I try to do one of these things when I'm mad, or stressed, or tired, I should just forget it. I've talked before about how hard it is to feel empathy when some other feeling is overwhelming me (like anger, or fear). As a result, if I'm already ticked off and ready to explode, this doesn't really happen.  I just know that it's a great tool for my parenting toolbox.

For those of you who are caregivers, do you fight with those you care for? What tools are in your toolbox to stop the arguing? Please add your thoughts in the comments below.


*Love & Logic is a company, so they ask for money for their services (seminars, videos, etc.). The podcasts are free, and I didn't get any money from them for writing this.


Kimmy said...

Hi!! YESSS! This works!! I was told by an early childhood development GENIUS of a woman, that we all just want to be HEARD. Especially toddlers and young children tho - not just us. But i remember so vividly this working in my house too!! By totally empathizing with my children, really making that angry face and saying "You are REALLY angry about not wanting to stop playing to come and take a bath!" And they'd stop and say "YES I AM!" and then happily go take a bath. It was lovely!! As my kids are now older, I have been trying to reward empathy when I See it, and I'm not sure that's a great idea - what do you think? One day when Michael came home from the beloved piano teacher's, very very upset because he had shirked on practicing that week, and it showed, and he let his teacher down, and he knew it. Arianna went over, and said "I so totally know how much that feels awful, it really stinks, but you can make it up this week, practice a little harder, and you'll feel better" I was just blown away when she walked over and totally empathized and related, and offered what made her feel better. So I bought a bag of hersey kisses, and they get an "Empathy Kiss" when I witness genuine empathy like that. Is that awful??? Great stuff!!

SL said...

I did the best I could, but the kids turned out OK anyway. I mostly depended on Dr. Spock and "The Prophet"


and raw gut instinct.

I think it is a great idea to try to build empathy in your kids. Even when it seems as if what you say and what you do is being completely ignored, have faith. They are listening.

I also like that ditty about God and Adam and Eve that ends what makes you think you could do any better.

Janet said...

Hi Kimmy,

Thanks for sharing your experiences. I'm glad this works for others, too, because that makes me think I'm on the right track.

As far as the 'reward' choice, I don't know if it's a good idea or not. I do like chocolate, though, so maybe that makes it okay. :)


Janet said...

Thanks SL! That's a great poem, I especially liked this part:

"You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth."

Earthshine said...

This is really cool stuff! It's nice to see stuff that applies to parents working with kids because, honestly, that's one of the biggest challenges. Trying to balance the roles of supporter and rule-bringer is really hard in any relationship, but it's especially tough with kids. I'll try to keep this stuff in mind. Thanks!

Janet said...

Thanks ES!