Can we empathize without agreeing?

Empathy is a big topic in our house.  When my husband and I think about our family’s values, about who we see our children becoming, about our reasons for sending them to school and our approaches to discipline, empathy is the term that seems to come up the most frequently.  How can we raise empathic children?  How can we help them to truly see other people and try understanding instead of anger?  How can we teach them that the world is so much bigger than our little lives?

Over the past several months, we have been inundated by images of violence, injustice, and heartbreak across our country and throughout our world.  Overlaying it all are some very loud voices spewing vitriol and hate and fear.  Yet, as I filter through that noise, I have been struck by the frequency with which some of my favorite writers have continued to emphasize and discuss the importance of empathy.  From Brene Brown to Pema Chodron to the Obamas, there is a collective call for all of us to walk in each other’s shoes, open our eyes to the experiences of people different than ourselves, and practice non-judgmental perspective-taking.  

For me, the only way that it makes sense to teach a mindset is through modeling.  If we want our children to be respectful, we show them respect.  If we want our children to be calm, we remain calm.  If we want our children to be empathic, we offer empathy.  This is where it can get a bit tricky.  When someone asks us to open our hearts and try to understand the suffering of Syrian refugees, or victims of gun violence, or people struggling with poverty, I know that is a situation deserving of the utmost empathy and understanding.  However, when my four-year-old is inconsolable because he can’t have a second popsicle before dinner, it feels a tad bit less, well, urgent.  Refugees = empathy, popsicle monsters= sigh/eye roll. 

Except, that is the tricky thing about empathy.  In order to be empathic, we don’t actually need to agree, to be having the exact experience, or to think that someone is ‘right’.  All we need to do is to connect with the emotion, however big or small.  Feeling disappointed, wanting something that I can’t have – I do know how that feels.  I can step into his little shoes and momentarily relate to his frustration that he is not in control, not getting what he wants.  And on those days when I am dealing with what feels like the 1,000th unreasonable request and empathy is the farthest thing from my mind, if I can connect with the emotion, I can still truthfully tell him that I understand: “That popsicle (game, ice cream, broken toy) does sound so good (fun, delicious, interesting, important, upsetting).”

When we teach empathy to our children, we must start small.  Little ideas, little moments, easily observable, easily relatable.  We can’t expect our children to wake up one morning understanding the plight of the oppressed if they have never practiced what it might feel like to be in their little sister’s shoes after they’ve refused to let her play.  Through our actions, words, compassion, and understanding, we start planting the seeds of empathy, trusting that as it becomes developmentally appropriate for them, they will have in place the solid foundation for deep understanding. 



How We Lost It at Target (or My Road to Relationship-Based Discipline)

A few years ago, when my daughter had just turned three, we experienced what I now refer to as the Great Target Meltdown. It occurred in July in the parking lot and ended up helping me reevaluate our family’s entire approach to discipline. We had just finished shopping, and as I was buckling my newborn son into his car seat, my daughter climbed into the car herself. Now, at this point, you can probably already tell that this story is not going to end well. Target. Mid-July. Three-year-old. Infant. Instead of settling into her own car seat she starts to climb around the car. Front seat. Back seat. Floor. Front seat, again. Passenger seat floor. Back seat. Driver seat. Basically, she sits in every space in the car other than her own car seat. And all the while, I am saying, “Please get into your seat. Climb in your seat. I need you to get into your seat. It’s time to get into your car seat.” And I’m sweating. Like really, really sweating. My son starts crying. My daughter says, “MOM! Why do you keep saying ‘get into your seat’?” And I can tell that I am starting to feel really, really mad.

I had always known what kind of parenting I DIDN’T want to do: spanking/hurting, yelling, coercion, bribery. Unfortunately, in the midst of this incident, I realized that knowing what I didn’t want did not automatically translate into knowing what I did want. I could see no clear path forward. I was supposed to be the confident leader, guiding my three-year-old and, yet, I was at a total loss. I was angry and frustrated with her, but even more so I was angry and frustrated with myself. It was such a small moment but I felt totally out of control and the worst part was, we all knew it.

Eventually, we ended up in our assigned seats and made it home, slightly worse for the wear, and I made a commitment to figure out the next steps for all of us. This was the beginning of my journey to what I now know as relationship-based discipline. It is a parenting philosophy that solely emphasizes the development and maintenance of the connection between parents and their children. Relationship-based discipline occurs when you are able to use your authentic bond with your child to help them understand and eventually gain control over their emotional responses. It is a philosophy that our family has embraced whole-heartedly and is at the center of all of our actions, discipline and otherwise.

Relationship-based discipline has helped me make parenting choices that respect the individuality of my kids, understand their contexts, and feel genuine empathy when they are struggling. It allows me to set and gently enforce clear limits long before I ever start to feel frustrated or angry. It has taught my children a level of emotional literacy that I find to be truly impressive. Most importantly, it has preserved and strengthened our connections as a family even during our most challenging moments.

And these challenging moments do happen, of course. My kids are wild energetic, mischievous curious professional mess-makers experimenters. They are still learning to make good choices, finding and testing limits, and experiencing, and figuring out how to express, increasingly complex emotions. The difference is that now I have a solid check in, one essential question that I can ask myself before I do or say anything to help ensure that I am making good choices: Will the action I am taking strengthen or weaken our relationship?

Prior to all of this, it was impossible for my daughter to predict my breaking point. After which number of requests would I finally have had enough? Truthfully, I didn’t really know either. Was it 95 degrees in the middle of a parking lot? How had we slept the previous night? Were we running late getting out the door? Were there other unrelated stresses? In moving to a relationship-based discipline model, things became much more predictable for all of us. My kids can trust that I will guide them according to my limits without getting angry or frustrated, and while we’re not immune to emotional outbursts or meltdowns, they know that I will be available to them and connected both during and afterwards.

Now, that being said, would I attempt a mid-heat wave Target run again with the two of them? Um, I think we’ll pass. I mean, we’re only human.