December 10, 2009 at 5:00 am 4 comments

Little by little I have been packing up box after box of stuffed animals, toys, and games, and guess what? The girls still play, play, play, all day long. Seems they do not actually need all of these things that fill our house. Today I began to wonder, what do they need?

Today I noticed they needed me, among other things, to:

mediate/translate during squabbles

make food

help wipe a bottom



tie a knot

and find a lost baby doll

As I look at the list, I notice there are some items that are fundamental needs, like food, and others are wants. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between the two and you can find yourself butting your head against a wall. Like I did last night for instance. Echo spent most, seemingly all, of the night nursing. By 4am I was ready to roll over and bend my knees – in essence, move out of the nursing position for at least a little while. Well, this was, to put it mildly, upsetting to Echo. She cried and screamed and tried to force her way back to my breast. It was awful. I explained and explained and explained to no avail. Finally I figured that half-sleeping while nursing was better than the no sleep Nathan and I were then getting, so I relented. But my nipples were so sore, and her hand kept twirling my hair until my face and neck were raw, and, worst of all, she did not sleep. Torture.

She seemed to need to nurse, and that was not working for me. So I lay there trying to logically figure it out. Maybe her need was really a want, and if so then there might be a deeper underlying need, and (hope beyond hope) I could meet that need in some way other than nursing.

I thought to myself: she wants to nurse, maybe she needs closeness. So I offered intensive belly to belly snuggling. Nope, not it. O.k. she wants to nurse, maybe she needs sleep. So I rocked and cooed. Nope, not it. O.k. she wants to nurse, maybe she needs FOOD!

That was it. A big cup of milk in the dim light of the night kitchen did the trick.

I think we all find ourselves at a loss sometimes when our child wants something and we are unwilling, or less commonly, actually unable to give it. Here is the Center for Nonviolent Communication’s list of needs. It  comes in handy when your child wants something or wants to do something that you find inappropriate (this is often called “being naughty”).

For example, your boy is hitting the wall, the dog, the snacks, with a stick and you don’t like it. In fact, perhaps it’s even against the rules to hit. You could punish him, you could explain the rules again, you could make sure a stick is never available to him ever again, or you could figure out the underlying need beneath the hitting. The need for a challenge? For purpose? For competence? For spontaneity? There are many possibilities, and in turn, so many possibilities to meet that need without involving timeouts, lectures, or constant vigilance.

And then sometimes (some times) you’ve considered the want, scoured the depths for underlying needs, tried several options for meeting suspected needs, and it still doesn’t work. The child still wants something that he can not have. Then what? Empathy. You hold them, listen to them, let them know that you hear them, and understand their desire.

You really want to hit the dog with the stick? You REALLY do. Are you sad that I am stopping you from doing that?  Are you mad that I interrupted your game? You want to keep doing it. It’s so fun for you. And you don’t want to hit a pillow or the grass, you want to do what you were doing.

The child does not get to keep hitting the dog, but he has been heard, understood, and loved. And he might cry for a long time, and he might be mad at you, and that’s o.k.

I was pretty sure this was the scenario Echo and I were headed for last night. I thought I might hold her until she sobbed herself to sleep, but thankfully for us all, we were able to meet her need instead. And sleep.

Entry filed under: empathy, favorites, life lessons. Tags: , , , , , , .

life with kids – rule #1: make no plans empathy delivery

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. kris  |  December 10, 2009 at 7:37 am

    the way that you offer us a real example from your life and weave in some guidance is so pleasing to me. thank you.

  • 2. Valerie  |  December 10, 2009 at 9:54 am

    Wow – I really needed to read that post. I have been struggling so long with my three-year-old’s frequent night nursing and my lack of sleep. I so want to be done with nursing, but he absolutely won’t let it go. If I can just have the patience in the middle of the night to try to find that need or just provide empathy.

  • 3. gen  |  December 12, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    Brilliant! And I’m right there with you on the all night nursing. I’ve just been laying there awake and unhappy – this to shall pass (repeat between bouts of sleep). But finding the need underneath! Thank you! And I’m so glad you found something that worked for you and your little one! Mine is just a little boy with a stubborn head cold. (that will eventually pass) It’s helpful for me to hear another mom up nursing longing to pull her knees into chest and sleep! I’m also grateful that my breasts have stretched enough so that I can now nurse while mostly on my back.

    • 4. nataliechristensen  |  December 13, 2009 at 9:28 am

      It’s funny. I thought I was the only one with the craving to bend my knees. Of course I’m not! How silly of me. And thank goodness for stretchy boobs.


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