Empathy is a buzzword these days in preschool parenting circles. Perhaps teaching empathy will provide a counterbalance to screen-addicted, nuance-devoid years to come, or perhaps it’s a response to a renewed public focus and concern about bullying. Whatever the motivation, there is an emphasis lately on teaching children how to consider the perspectives of others. The philosophy is that a more empathetic person creates not just a happier person, but a happier society. Win-win.
What’s funny, however, is that “empathy,” while perhaps sounding rather touchy-feely, is actually at odds with parents’ traditional ways of raising a nice kid with good manners. Below are three ways parents often succeed at raising a nice kid, but not necessarily one who’s empathetic.
1. Making kids share
How many times have you been in this scenario? Your kid has a toy snatched away from him on the playground and he sobs. Your reaction? To try to calm your kid down because you don’t want other parents to think you are materialistic or that you raised a selfish brat. However, this doesn’t actually teach true sharing, which is the act of wanting to give the other person a turn. Not to mention, little kids just aren’t emotionally developed enough to think, “Oh, that other kid wants my toy. That makes sense and is fair.” So, the next time a kid steals your kid’s toy, at the very least, there’s no need to convince your child that he should be fine with it.
2. Not letting kids be mad or sad for too long
Let’s face it — happier kids are more pleasant to be around than angry or upset children. And we all would rather our kids be happy than furious. That said, we needn’t rush to calm our children when they’re having a moment. That doesn’t mean letting your kid have a nuclear tantrum in the middle of the library, but in the sharing/stealing scenario above, if someone steals your kid’s toy, you don’t have to rush to distract him or convince him he’s not mad. Saying something like, “I’d be mad if that happened to. Let’s see if there’s something else to do for now — I’ll bet you’ll get a turn again soon.” And take it from me, it’s actually kind of refreshing just to let a mad kid stomp around for a bit instead of begging or ordering him to be happy.
3. Making kids say, “I’m sorry”
We’ve all been made to say we were sorry as kids, and how often did we really mean it? If you’re like me, not terribly often. “Say you’re sorry,” doesn’t actually teach a kid what being sorry means. If your kid hurt someone else, instruct your kid to look at the other child and say something like, “Look at how upset he is! Tell me what happened.” Having to face how his actions hurt someone is way more effective at teaching consequences than just getting a whiny, “I’m sorry.” If you do need some sort of verbal acknowledgement of wrongdoing, a promise — to the injured child — that he won’t do it again works.