On Empathy and How We Treat Small Children
By Mama Pants on September 12, 2012
Why do people feel so burdened by their kids? Better question: Why do people project adult size reason and cognition onto their kids? Is it so we can feel better for losing our cool with them?
Let me back up.
I have been so surprised recently by what can only be described as an avalanche of mean shit all over the internet. And it's directed at kids. For being kids. It bugs the ever loving shit out of me. Now, before you get worried that I'm pointing at you, let me admit first that I've done it. I've been guilty of being a douche at times. But not often, not about this (on other topics and how much of a douche I am? It varies).
I strive to empathize. Because I believe that if we stopped our adult bullshit long enough to take a good look at how our kids are feeling and honor it, everyone wins. Your child is validated and made to feel safe and you reap the benefits of your kid learning how to empathize because they are watching you show them. Isn't that what we want?
So it shocks me when parents are more worried about being embarrassed by a tantruming child than they are about why the child is in distress. Parents are taking the opportunity all over social media to accuse their kids of trying to ruin their day or make everything "so hard". I've even seen name calling and straight up contempt. This burns my ass. Literally, it holds a torch to my ass. I want to scream. And then it occurs to me that I blog and therefore I can to scream into the internet and maybe someone will hear me.
We are talking about feelings.
They're tricky. They come and act all irrational when you least expect them too and compete with your brain and body for the floor. They are spontaneous and often self-centered. They are the pre-pubescent incarnation of everything. At once. They know no restrictions and can't be ignored. And they are not an adult phenomenon. Your kids are having these feelings to. And they are just as powerful and just as earth shattering as yours.
But here's the thing... they are not a master plan to get you. They are not mapped out in your child's brain the night before in a plot to mess things up. They come and they over power our kids. And the difference between us and them? We've learned how to handle them. How to rationalize with ourselves to move through a tough time without kicking and screaming and crying. But let's not kid ourselves. That's what we want to do. That's what our instinct is. To go off. To let fly. To let the feelings come.
Our kids haven't learned yet how to walk through difficult feelings. They are in the thick of it and they don't yet have the tools to manage such an onslaught. They cannot ignore the feelings and they don't have the coping skills yet to breathe them out without chaos. So they tantrum and they scream and cry and kick and cling to us. Their feelings rule them. It's real. It's not a manipulation. It is real.
So I would throw out a challenge to you (and to me. Because I need reminded too). Instead of becoming angry. Instead of jumping into a feelings avalanche with them. Why not look at the situation and understand where they are coming from. Ask yourself, what is causing this? Fear? Frustration? Exhaustion? Sadness?
Pinpoint it. And proceed with empathy. Not anger. Empathy.
We try so hard to teach our kids how to be. We try too hard I think. We go overboard. We venture into telling them who they are instead of letting them decide who they are. And that serves to strip them of their self-esteem in the long run. You want to curl their hair, but they don't want you too? Don't do it. Don't force it. The message you send when you force it is; The way you want to be is not good enough. You should be what I want. And I'm bigger than you so I win.
That is a shit lesson.
Instead, attempt to understand them. Where they are. Not where you want them to be. But right there where they are. Even if that place is the Wal-Mart shampoo aisle. Because when we show our kids that we put value in their feelings and that we believe they are having a hard time and we want to help them process it, we teach them to show that to others. Including us. And that is a lesson that will serve them, you and the greater society well. Because it reinforces empathy instead of stripping it away. It builds self-esteem and creates trust.
We want our kids to trust us, right? Well, we have to earn that.
Last week I was blown away by my toddler daughter's demonstration of empathy. Watching her care for her brother was probably my proudest moment as a mother. It was in watching her that I realized that she knows empathy. She knows it in her bones. She doesn't need to learn it. She already has it. What she needs is for us not to strip it away from her. She needs that natural love and care to be reinforced. To be shown to her. To be cultivated through reciprocation.
That is what we strive for as parents.
I hope that you will consider striving for it too. We can all be better for it. I'm not blowing smoke. Our kids are learning from the very begining. There is no magical start and stop time.
Start now. Actively empathize with your child. And never stop.
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