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Modeling Empathy to Your Child

How To Model Empathy To Your Child To Instill Values

In parenting our eight children, an early lesson we learned is that when we were uncertain how to react to our children, we would get behind their eyes and imagine situations from their viewpoint. This technique helps you to understand what causes your child's behavior and figure out how to redirect it.

Our Matthew at age 2 was a very focused child. He would become so engrossed in a play activity that it was difficult for him to let go when it was time to leave. One day when he was playing and it was time for us to depart (we were late for an appointment), Martha scooped Matthew up and carried him to the door. Matthew protested with a typical 2-year-old tantrum.

Provide Advance Warning and Gradual Transition

At first she had the usual, "Hey, I'm in charge here" feelings and felt that she was justified in expecting Matthew to obey quickly and be willing to leave his toys. But as Martha was carrying the flailing child out the door, she realized that her discipline gauge was out of balance and she was not handling things in the best way. Her actions were a result of her need to leave, but they didn't take into account Matthew's need for advance warning and a more gradual transition. She realized it wasn't in Matthew's nature to click off his interest in play so quickly even if we did have a deadline. He was not defying her, just being true to himself.

Saying Bye-Bye

She got behind Matthew's eyes and realized he needed more time to let go of his activities. So she calmly took him back to the play setting, sat down with him and together they said, "Bye-bye, toys, bye-bye, trucks, bye-bye, cars," until he could comfortably release himself from his activities. It only took a couple of minutes, time that would otherwise have been wasted struggling with Matthew in the car.

This was not a "technique" or "method"; this disciplinary action evolved naturally from the mutual respect between parent and child and the knowledge that Martha had about Matthew. At the end of this exercise Martha felt right because it had accomplished what she wanted -- getting Matthew out of the house with the least amount of hassle.

Getting Behind the Eyes of a Child

We also used the getting-behind-the-eyes-of-a-child approach when deciding where it was best for our infants to sleep. First, we believe that there is no right or wrong place for an infant to sleep -- it's where all family members get the best night's sleep, and that may be a different arrangement at various stages of a child's development. In deciding whether it was wise for our infant to sleep in our bed or in a crib, we got behind the eyes of our baby. We asked ourselves, "If we were infants, would we rather sleep alone in a dark room -- behind bars -- or nestled securely close to parents?" Once we looked at it this way, the choice for co-sleeping versus solo-sleeping was an obvious one.

Getting behind the eyes of your child helps you act like a mature adult in figuring out the best discipline approach on the spur of the moment. One day our 2-year-old, Lauren, impulsively grabbed a carton of milk out of the refrigerator and spilled it on the floor. We were already late for where we were going and I was about to get angry at Lauren. Yet, we saw Lauren was about to disintegrate, knowing that she had displeased her parents. Martha, the master empathizer, calmly walked over, squatted down to Lauren's level, put her hand on her shoulder and started talking softly to her. Lauren immediately stopped crying, hugged her mommy, and we all cleaned up the mess.

I later asked Martha what she did to calm Lauren so quickly. Martha said that she asked herself, "If I were Lauren, what would I want my mother to say?" Kids do annoying things, not maliciously, but because they don't think like adults. You are likely to have a miserable day if you let every kid-created mess bother you. It would have been easy for us to click into the "Oh, no! Now I have to clean up this mess" mindset. Yet, getting out of yourself and into your child saves mental strain. You don't have to clean up the mess in your mind along with the milk on the floor.

Getting behind the eyes of your child is an exercise in mutual sensitivity. I saw this mutual sensitivity develop particularly between Matthew and Martha. When Matthew was upset, Martha knew what he needed, almost as if she could get inside his mind. Matthew also became sensitive to Martha. When she was having a bad day, 3-year-old Matthew would sometimes come up and put his hand on his mom's shoulder and say, "Dats OK, mommy. I help you."

Getting behind the eyes of your child is one of the earliest forms of modeling empathy to your children. While we all have our favorite values that we want to instill in our children, top on our list of tools to succeed in life that we want to give our children is the quality of empathy. Empathy begins with the ability of a child to think through what he's about to do. Empathy is teaching a child how to get behind the eyes of another child and imagine the effects of their behavior on the other child -- before they act. The child with empathy thinks before he acts.

In collecting research for our newest book -- Kids Who Turned Out Well, What Their Parents Did -- here's the correlation that seems to stand out: parents relate to us that because they spent a lot of time getting behind the eyes of their children early on, they see how their children are becoming kids who care. These children have been brought up realizing that empathy is a normal way of family living. In contrast, therapists we have interviewed tell us that a main trait of sociopaths is the inability to empathize. They act before they think. They don't imagine the effects of their behavior on other people -- before they shoot up the high school. In fact, in the wake of the recent newspaper headlines and school shootings, when we surveyed parents we found that those who had practiced many of the attachment styles of parenting and modeled empathy for their children often reported to us: "My child is most unlikely to ever shoot up a high school." Teaching your children empathy is indeed a long-term investment.

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