Unlocking the Power of Empathy in Raising Responsible Children

Is your child unresponsive and irresponsible? How do you avoid power struggles while teaching character? Do your children behave differently at home than they do at school? At home they whine, complain, procrastinate and look to you to solve their problems? Parents commonly respond to a child's negative behaviors and mistakes by ranting, lecturing and rescuing, all recipes for cultivating more negative behaviors such as, irresponsibility, belligerence and defiance. These same parents express bewilderment when the report from their child's teacher is quite the opposite. Why are parents' experiences so different from teachers'? The answer may surprise you. It can be found in the powerful relational tools of empathy, experience, encouragement, expectations, and example to instill positive behaviors. And, the good news is you can learn these tools, too. This article will focus on the first of these relational tools, empathy.

First, sympathy and empathy are not synonymous. Sympathy says: "I feel your pain." Empathy says: "Gosh, I'm sorry you feel so badly." or "Boy, I bet you're disappointed." or "Gosh, I guess that didn't work out for you." The difference is in ownership of the feeling. In sympathy, you take ownership of your child's problem. In empathy, you acknowledge that the problem is your child's therefore they must solve it.

Second, empathy allows children to learn from their mistakes. No parent wants to see their child suffer. However, quite often the child's suffering is born of their own mistakes or bad behaviors. For example, you have coached your child repeatedly to place their backpack by the door and inventory that they have their homework and lunch ready to go before they leave for school. Yet this day your child forgot their lunch and you have gotten the SOS call from school. How do you handle that? Empathy: "Wow that is a problem! How do you think you should handle that?" Rather than rescue your child by dropping what you are doing to make up for their mistake, allow them to work out a solution. This delivers an additional positive message that you have confidence in them to solve this on their own.

Third, empathy enables your child to avoid the blame game. Using the above example, parents often respond to that SOS phone call with anger, frustration or a sense of victimization. "I've told you a thousand times to have everything ready before you walk out of the door in the morning!" Or, the victim response: "Now I have to be late for work to do for you what you should have done for yourself!" Both of these responses provide the opportunity for your child to shift the blame to you or someone else. "You didn't wake me up in time." Escalation is sure to follow.

Fourth, if natural consequences are delivered effectively via empathy, your relationship with your child will grow stronger while arguments are avoided. Empathy comes across as warm and loving. Children tend to love us more, even though they are suffering the natural consequences. They discover that we trust their abilities to problem-solve and adequately negotiate their predicament. "How do you think you might solve this problem today?"

Fifth, empathy before discipline prevents the "fight or flight" emotional reflex. Empathy should always be delivered with sincerity. When sarcasm is employed you add a level of emotion and communication which is very hard for a child to understand in the midst of their trial. It's too confusing for them to decode plus it deflects your purpose which is to teach your child that behavior (good or bad) has consequences and teaching responsibility is your goal.

We encourage you to clip this article. In the future we will cover the remaining four essentials to raising responsible children. As you understand and practice these skills the behavior gap between school and home will narrow.

New Vistas Center for Education, named a Top Ten School by Johns Hopkins University CTY, founded in 1979, is a private pre-school through sixth grade Aug-May and pre-school through high school June-August, located at: 670 North Arizona Avenue, Suite 35, Chandler, AZ 85225. Currently, New Vistas is celebrating their 34th anniversary.