Empathy is the ability to feel what another person is feeling. When you think of parenting and discipline, instead of thinking just of correcting misbehavior, think about all of your long-term goals for your children — helping them become kind, civic minded and empathetic people.
Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline stated, “Remember that punishment may stop the misbehavior momentarily, but will not solve the problem permanently. Only helping the child feel a sense of belonging and significance through encouragement will have long-term positive effects.”
Here are five ways to help your children have more empathy:
1. Be sensitive to your child’s emotions
Researchers have stressed that in parenting, instead of trying to suppress what emotions children are feeling, we can teach them to channel their emotions in healthy and appropriate ways.
Consider a child who has hurt his sibling and gets spanked or put in timeout. What is going through his head at that time? Most likely, he will be feeling hurt, misunderstood, worthless or angry. Our parenting will be much more effective if we find out why the child misbehaved, help him express those emotions, and teach him what to do the next time he is angry.
The book Unconditional Parenting suggests, “People who can — and do — think about how others experience the world are more likely to reach out and help those people — or, at a minimum, are less likely to harm them.”
Although children are not as experienced or mature as us, they do deserve to be treated respectfully. Criticizing and humiliating damages relationships and a child's self-worth.
How would you feel if you lost your wallet and someone said, “Oh, that’s not a big deal,” or, “If you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to really cry about.” We would probably feel like the person didn’t care about our feelings. It would be so much more helpful to correct and teach in a respectful manner that communicates unconditional love to our child and models how she should treat others.
3. Teach through example
As parents, if we want our children to exhibit appropriate behavior, then we need to model what it looks like. Children watch their parents very closely and mimic the behavior that they see. The next time you are angry, use the experience to teach your child how to handle that anger. Take a break and cool off. Tell your child you will discuss the issue when you have calmed down. Explore the underlying emotions in front of your child. You might say, “I’m really angry about how you ran into the road this morning, but the reason I feel angry is that I am actually so afraid of you getting hurt and I care about you so much.” Exploring these emotions helps both you and your child express your feelings in a healthy way.
True learning occurs when people make their own discoveries. Our children will often not learn as much from our lectures, but through verbally exploring their own mistakes.
Author Alfie Kohn stated, “When children are old enough to tell us why they’re unhappy or angry, the question then becomes whether they feel safe enough to do so. Our job is to create that sense of safety, to listen without judgment, to make sure they know they won’t get into trouble for telling us what they’ve done or be condemned for what they feel.”
As they become teenagers, it will be especially crucial that our children open up to us as they are put in stressful situations and as peer pressure becomes more influential in their life.
5. Set limits
When we parent, we need to do it kindly and respectfully, but with firm limits. If a child refuses to eat breakfast, we should not verbally attack or spank him. We should also not let him manipulate us into making whatever suits his fancy in the moment. We should give him choices of what breakfasts are available and let him choose one. He may even decide not to eat breakfast.
Applying these five principles will help our children become empathetic adults that are sensitive to the needs of others.
Mary Pearson is from Martinsburg, West Virginia. She has two sisters. She will graduate with her Bachelor's of Science Degree in Child Development in fall 2013. She enjoys playing the piano, singing, and watching movies. From a young age, she has enjoyed reading parenting books.
Jessica Himmer is a college student studying Marriage and Family Studies. Jessica and her sweetheart, Stuart were married on May 14, 2011. Jessica loves animals, gardening, fishing, backpacking, reading, art, and designing websites. She has a passion for the family and loves researching and reading books about better parenting techniques.