R. Brooks: The Power of Parenting
eyes. Empathy does not imply that you agree with what your children do, but rather you attempt to appreciate and validate their point of view. Also, it is easier for children to develop empathy when they interact with adults who model empathy on a daily basis.
It is not unusual for parents to believe they are empathic, but the reality is that empathy is more fragile or elusive than many realize. Experience shows that it is easier to be empathic when our children do what we ask them to do, meet our expectations, and are warm and loving. Being empathic is tested when we are upset, angry, or disappointed with our children. When parents feel this way, many will say or do things that actually work against a child developing resilience.
To strengthen empathy, parents must keep in mind several key questions, questions that I frequently pose in my clinical practice and workshops. They include:
“How would I feel if someone said or did to me what I just said or did to my child?”
“When I say or do things with my children, am I behaving in a way that will make them most responsive to listening to me?”
“How would I hope my child described me?”
“Do I behave in ways that would prompt my child to describe me in the way I hope?”
“How would my child actually describe me and how close is that to how I hope my child would describe me?”
While thinking about these questions are essential features of effective parenting, they are often neglected when parents are confronted with frustration and anger. This is evident in the following two case examples.
Mr. and Mrs. Kahn were perplexed why their son John, a seventh grader, experienced so much difficulty completing his homework. John was an excellent athlete but had a long history of struggling to learn to read. His parents, noticing John’s lack of interest in school activities, believed he was “lazy” and he could do the work if he “put his mind to it.” They often exhorted him to “try harder” and they angrily reminded him on a regular basis how awful he would feel as a senior in high school when he was not accepted into the college of his choice.
While perhaps well-intentioned, when Mr. and Mrs. Kahn told John to “try harder” they failed to consider how these words were experienced by their son. Many youngsters who are repeatedly told to “try harder” interpret this statement not as helpful or encouraging but rather as judgmental and accusatory, intensifying their frustration rather than their motivation to improve. Thus, the words the Kahns used worked against their goal to motivate John. If they had reflected upon how they would feel if they were having difficulty at work and their boss yelled, “Try harder,” they may have refrained from using these words.
Mr. and Mrs. Kahn learned that by placing themselves inside John’s shoes, they could communicate with him in ways that would lessen defensiveness and increase cooperation. They told him that they realized they came across as “nagging” but did not wish to do so. They said that they knew he possessed many strengths but there were areas that were more challenging for him such as reading. By being empathic they transformed an accusatory attitude into a problem-solving framework by asking John what he thought would help. This more positive approach made it easier for John to acknowledge his difficulties in school and prompted his willingness to receive tutoring.
Sally, a shy eight-year-old, was frequently reminded by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Carter, to say hello when encountering family or friends. Yet, from a young age Sally’s