Empathy for Toddlers: A Work in Progress
By Kristy Dolha on December 09, 2010
There is a fundamental difference between having an only child, and having the second. I would expect that any number you add to the singleton would mark a significant change in the family dynamics, but I wouldn't know...I won't be adding any more to the equation.
The time when adults outnumbered children in our family unit was not so long ago, and even through my sleep deprived haze, I feel like I can remember it well. I would marvel over each and every developmental stage, and I knew exactly what was ahead because I had done my research well. My husband and I would coo over each and every new skill the wee man acquired, and take time to appreciate each little moment, swearing that this was it! This had to be the very best part of being a parent. With baby number 2...well, let's just say things are a little different.
It's not that I don't enjoy her as she masters each new stage and ploughs through a developmental smorgasbord board. She's amazing! So amazing, in fact, I can't keep up with her! It's like this: where my husband and I would sit ready and attentive poised for the very moment Liam would manage to lift his head, or roll over for the first time, when I first happened to see Chloe pull herself up to standing, I frantically called Nate over to bare witness, and share this epic moment. His response? Oh that, she's been doing that for a few weeks now. Weeks?! Where have I been?
There is a fundamental difference between having an only child, and having the second. The second child spends significantly more time unattended.
Life's busy having kids. If you have them, I'm preaching to the choir and need go no further. If you don't, you've probably noticed that most parents are certifiably insane, and need no further explanation. At either rate, you get that most days I'm more than a bit frazzled. So when the kids are playing contentedly, and I'm scrambling to get dinner made before the hunger induced tantrums are upon us, and when Chloe starts the spontaneous screams, you better believe that I'm hollering at Liam to fix it before I've even seen the situation. But recently there's been a troubling development.
I'll turn my back for but a moment on seemingly happy kids, and hear screams of protest from Chloe followed almost immediately by the pitter patter of Liam's footsteps as he bolts from the scene, giggling all the way. Soothing Chloe, I demand Liam return to explain himself. Getting to the bottom of the situation is generally pretty easy. It's the implications of what is said that I find troubling.
Me: Liam, what happened?
Liam: I bumped her head. (At this point, he's still giggling, and Chloe's still sniffling.)
Me: Did you make her cry?
Liam: Uh-huh (He's enjoying this, actually enjoying it!)
Me: Why is she crying?
Liam: She's hurt! (He's proud to know the answers)
Me: Liam, when you hurt someone, you don't just run away! You say: I'm sorry, are you okay?
Liam: I'm sorry, Chlo! Are you okay? (And with a quick kiss to the top of her head, he's off.)
Within seconds Chloe has forgotten the assault, happy to be cuddled and bounced in mom's arms, and Liam has returned to his imaginary play with nary a worry. The kids recover quickly from these incidents. I'm the one that's left feeling troubled. Intellectually, Liam understands what he's done, but emotionally, empathically, there's no connection.
It's a work in progress, and let me tell you, the progress is slow! But it's a process on which I'm willing to spend the time it takes to make it right. Empathy while innate to a certain extent, absolutely needs to be taught. I find it easy to quickly swoop into a situation and quickly play judge and jury, and dole out timeouts, but what is not always so easy, is to remind myself that he needs to learn these things. He needs to be taught.
So we role play with his toys (ouch! You ran me off the tracks, and that hurt my feelings!), and we play games that link emotions to facial expressions (let's sing it mad this time) and we talk about our feelings. If I'm being honest, I would admit that most of the time, these lessons feel a bit forced and contrived, but I do feel like I'm making progress, if for nothing else than for the fact that it makes me more aware of the need to educate, rather than to simply berate. It helps me to, just as I did with his first steps and other similar obstacles, find joy and excitement in the acquisition of this new skill. And it teaches Chloe, too.
A few weeks ago, Liam had his first serious playground injury. He was playing with the big boys, and was thrilled to be getting their attention. Thrilled until one of them decided to push him down. There were no real physical injuries, but Liam's ego was seriously bruised. He cried most of the way home, and was desperate to try to find an actual wound. I suggested that maybe it was his feelings that were really hurt. He agreed, and when his dad came home later that day, he heard all about it. Look daddy! The boy hurt my feelings right here!
The next time Liam pushed Chloe down, I took the opportunity to remind him about his experience at the playground. Do you think you might have hurt Chloe's feelings just like that boy hurt yours? He gasped audibly, and looked truly troubled. My heart bubbled up with excitement as he pondered the question, and I entertained the possibility of real progress. Sorry Chlo! And he was off running.
It's progress, albeit slow.
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