Saturday, January 23, 2010

day twenty-four: begin empathy training early

“So how does that make her feel?”
-One of the most popular Reish family questions

The most popular post of Positive Parenting 3*6*5 so far has definitely been the one a couple of days ago about not allowing your children to strike one another. So many people want to know what to do if their preschoolers and school-aged children are already hitting or harming their siblings in anger or frustration. While there are many answers to that question, one thing that stands out more than anything about the topic of harming another person is the dire need to do two things: treat your children with the kindness, love, and gentleness that you want them to treat their siblings (and others) with and begin empathy training early.

When I say “treat your children with the kindness, love, and gentleness that you want your children to treat others with,” I am not suggesting for a minute that you be their “little buddy” or that you do not punish them as needed. I am suggesting, however, that you “do to them what you want them to do to others” when it comes to tone of voice, interaction, gentleness, etc.—from babyhood.

We have three boys, ages seventeen, almost fifteen, and eleven—our last three children, and I am convinced that the reason that they have such kind hearts, sweet spirits, and gentle actions toward others is because they were preceded by three girls in a row who doted on them, loved them, and treated them with great kindness. They also have an older brother (the oldest child in the family) who would never hurt a flea and adored them as well. From these boys’ earliest recollections, they were handled with kindness and gentleness (and yes, lots of discipline and punishment, as needed)—and they treat others the same way.

When I say begin empathy training early, I mean to explain to your children from babyhood that their actions have a huge influence on others. This begins with simple cause and effect explanations. “When you took that toy away from Joey, that hurt his feelings because he was playing with it first.” “When you called her Stupid it made her sad. We shouldn’t say things to others that make them sad.” And yes, even, “How do you think that makes her feel?”

We have a tendency as parents to be firefighters—always putting out fires instead of  preventing them. We grab the toy out of Timmy’s hands and say that Joey had that. We tell our little ones not to talk that way. And on and on—oftentimes in anger and frustration because we have allowed a behavior to become a pattern. If our children are mean or harsh with someone, we need to bring to their attention the effect that that type of behavior has on that person—not just tell the child to stop doing it.

I believe in punishment and discipline for children very strongly. But I also believe that if we would, from our children’s earliest days, treat them kindly and remind them how others’ feel, we can ward off a lot of unkindness, harshness—and even “striking”—while training them in empathy.

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