All parents have concerns. Lately my daughter has been a complete “terrible twos toddler” and she has been in the hitting, throwing and tantrum phase for a little while now. When the transition from that sweet, clumsy and giggly baby morphed into a screaming, throwing, hitting mommy and daddy terror began I did panic a bit. I have read more parenting books than I can count since pregnancy so I felt that I was going to be prepared for this phase.
Mentally, I was prepared. I knew what to do, how to prevent the situations that caused a meltdown, how to keep cool and calm so the situation wouldn’t escalate further, all of that.
Honestly I’m more hurt than angry when she has an outburst. I truly feel for my daughter when I deny her that toy at the store, when she tries to escape from her car seat and I firmly tell her to stop, when she doesn’t want to go to bed or take a bath. I feel for her because if I were her and 60% of everything I did was always being corrected or redirected I’d feel like I wasn’t my own person. That would truly drive me up the wall!
I’m pretty sure she’s beginning to understand why her daddy and I are correcting her all the time. It’s because she needs boundaries, she needs rules and she needs to be able to trust her parents to make the big decisions that will enable her to be self sufficient and decisive when she grows up. She needs guidance in this incredibly confusing and overwhelming phase of toddlerhood.
Empathy is the ability to understand other people’s feelings and respond with kindness. Raising an empathetic child requires intentional efforts to teach the desired behavior. Sometimes this can be quite a challenge. You’re trying to keep your cool and your child is screaming at you, throwing toys on the floor or flinging themselves on the floor while crying and looking at you like you’re the meanest parent ever. For me personally, to kneel down to my daughters level, look her calmly in the eye and cupping her cheek in my hand gently while saying in a soft voice “We don’t hit. Hitting hurts,” or “I know you’re upset because daddy took your bear away, but we do not throw Blue Beary,” it can be quite difficult.
It’s hard to remain cool and calm but it needs to happen and that’s what I tell myself when I want to run to MY room and throw pillows on the floor when she’s pushing my buttons. Children need to be told why they are being corrected and what the proper response should be when they’re feeling an intense emotion that they can’t quite get a handle on just yet. I know I’m doing something right because just the other day my daughter was getting frustrated with a puzzle and normally she would stand up and kick and throw the puzzle pieces everywhere if she couldn’t figure it out on her own. But as I was sitting there watching her become frustrated, something happened. She looked over at me and looked at her puzzle. She did this a couple times and then she got up off the floor and ran over to me “Mama mama, help.” She took my hand and pulled me over to the puzzle that was on the floor, sat down next to me and handed me a piece and pointed at the puzzle: “Mama, Mama.”
So we spent the next half hour assembling and dissembling the puzzle. She sat there next to me and from time to time rested her head on my shoulder and patted my arm. It was the most incredible feeling. For the first time my daughter was able to control her emotions and calmly think of a solution.
What does his have to do with empathy you’re probably wondering. Well, I’ve noticed lately, especially in the city I live in that a lot of parents don’t take that extra minute to talk things through with their child. I tend to hear a lot of rushed moms who use threats of no dessert or TV or a smack if they don’t stop “whining” or “put that back.” These are things I hear at the grocery store all the time. I’ll take a moment to watch how the moms interact with their children and the problem is blatantly obvious. Those moms aren’t treating their children with respect. They aren’t empathic to their children’s needs because their priorities overpower a teachable moment that would make this a much more enjoyable experience for everyone.
What is happening? I look at those children and this may sound corny but it’s hard not to get teary eyed. You can see it in their faces, they’re just dying to learn, to explore, to be guided by their mom. Instead they’re dragged around, being yelled at and toys and dessert are threatened, just because they’re kids being kids.
I have never had that problem with my daughter at the store. There are times when I get funny looks from parents because when I’m in the produce aisle my daughter will point and cry out “APPLES!” I’ll push the cart over, grab a produce bag and align the basket right next to the apples. “Let’s get four apples today.” I’ll hold the bag out and one by one, my daughter will reach over and pick up an apple and as she drops them in the bag she’ll count the apples out loud as she lets them go “Oooone, Tooooo, Treeeee.” I get a kick out of that every time. Since she was in a car seat at the store I was doing that. I’d explain what I was doing and count everything out while describing colors and shapes and I guess it’s just a special routine we’re always going to have while she’s young. Those moments are so special to me, and I’m sure they are for my little girl as well.
Raising an empathic child is one of the most important attributes that you can teach as a parent. Without that skill, children will grow to be uncaring of others feelings, selfish, pushy, bossy and possibly a bully who demeans and hurts others. The ability to put yourself in someone’s shoes and to see things from their perspective is something that I could not live without. Empathy has helped me to treat my daughter with love, compassion and respect. While other parents out there scream and drag their children around because they have their own agenda, I include my daughter in my agenda. She isn’t an inconvenience, she’s my daughter and she’s learning. She’s soaking up everything I do, everything I say, the way I respond to every situation she witnesses. “If mommy screams and yells and hits, than it’s okay for me to do the same, but when I do the same I get screamed at and yelled at.” Think about that one for a minute. Wouldn’t that confuse you to pieces if you were a child?”
Taking the extra minute or two to comfort your child when she’s afraid or angry, to explain why hitting and throwing is wrong, to tell them what is expected of them before embarking on the errands, to squeeze in that extra hug and kiss everyday, to focus on what they’re doing right and to make them feel good about it instead of only paying attention to them when they make a mistake or misbehave. Those are the building blocks for an empathic child. I will admit, some children will be way more difficult than others but remember, they’re just children. Children who need compassion, guidance, redirection at times and most importantly, unconditional love.
Encourage your child to talk about their feelings and ask questions that encourage them to think about their feelings and the feelings of others. Model empathy in every way you can and with every opportunity you have.
Books are an excellent tool for teaching empathy to your child. Point out facial expressions and have your child label those feelings. Talk about emotions that are displayed with frowns, smiles, tears. It’s a very useful tool that has worked wonders for me. In fact, my latest book Fred The Frog Finds A Friend is all about empathy and my daughter and I read my book everyday. The beetle is her favorite character and she’ll point to his face because he smiles and frowns in the book and she’ll say “Maaaad, Apppy!” It’s the coolest feeling realizing that a book I wrote is teaching my daughter one of the most valuable lessons she’ll ever learn. Its my hope that other parents will want to share my book with their children as well.
If you and your children had teachable moment that you would like to share I’d love to hear it and I’m sure that other parents would love to hear about it as well!