you don’t have to wait

March 4, 2010 at 10:28 pm 2 comments

For many of you, using empathy and information as a parenting tactic sounds great, promising, and gentle, but you find yourself wondering: how in the world do I use this, seemingly language based parenting strategy, with my preverbal child?

The simple answer is that your child need not be able to speak in order to parent in this way.

Empathy is not dependent on language. Any person, no matter what their age or developmental stage, knows real empathy when they feel it. You can feel empathy by the look on someone’s face or by their mere acknowledgement of your struggle. You do not need to speak in order to receive empathy, nor do you need words in order to give empathy. Empathy requires no action and no script, it is a state of being. Giving empathy does not mean convincing a crying girl that she need not be sad, that mom will fix whatever the problem might be, or explaining why a disgruntled boy can’t use dad’s power saw. Giving empathy is noticing the girl is sad, it is recognizing the boy is frustrated.

Moms and dads know when their children are upset whether or not the kid is screaming, “I’m mad!”, and can offer empathy through their attention, intention, the look on their face, as well as their words.

“Are you mad? Oh, really mad. You were still using that bowl and I cleared it off the table. You didn’t want me to take that bowl.”

These are the words, but the parent emphasizes their empathy by looking at the child, by avoiding wiping the table at the same time as the interaction, by waiting to continue a conversation until the child feels completely heard, by using sign language, and by actually feeling the frustration of having something taken from them before they were ready.

Empathy is easy, there are so many ways to show empathy, and your child need not be able to talk in order to reap the rewards. But giving information might seem trickier if you are concerned about a language barrier. We worry that if a child can’t speak then they must not be able to understand very well when we speak, so in response we attempt to talk more simply. The risk here is that speaking too simply means that less information is being conveyed, and information can change the entire landscape of a disagreement.

“I’m holding your hand because a car is coming and I want to make sure you get to the other side of the street safely.”

With information like this, the sudden invasion of personal space and autonomy makes sense, without it the child might be left feeling violated, or disrespected.

And this kind of language is not just for older children. I am a firm believer of speaking to children in full sentences no matter how old they are. At our house we do not dumb down our language, whether we are talking to a newborn or a nine year old. My memory of the early baby days are too fuzzy with nostalgia to recall detailed examples, but luckily I spent time with our dear friend Gabe yesterday and witnessed countless examples of straightforward mama to baby communication. Here is a sampling:

“I’m getting the sling ready for you. You seemed a little unhappy and I thought maybe you might want to get back in here. Although, you seem pretty happy now… Are you liking being somewhere where you can see my face? Yeah. You’ve spent a good part of the day sort of tucked in haven’t you? You can’t see my face when you are in the sling. Now we can look at each other. I see you!”

Her baby is two months old.

If you closed your eyes you would have no idea which child she was talking to, her three year old or her newborn.

As an aside, if, as a parent, you need more information in order to give better empathy, sign language is perfect. Children can move their fingers in meaningful shapes long before they can vocalize meaningful sounds. With sign language you can know for sure how your child is feeling even when they can’t explain it clearly with words. For a video dictionary of signs, visit the baby sign section of aslpro.

Children also don’t need words to point to a Feeleez character. We’ve used our Feeleez poster to gather information about the murky feelings of our children for years.

Even grunting, screaming, whimpering children can receive empathy, and these same children can also handle a good deal of information. We have no way of knowing for sure how much our children take in, but I am inclined to think it is a whole lot, and if I’m going to err, I think I’ll go in the direction of providing plenty, both in empathy and information.

If you are interested in parenting this way, it might be helpful to make no distinction between verbal and preverbal. In fact any relationship can be nurtured with empathy and information. This kind of meaningful interaction can be shared not only with your baby, but also with your sister, boss, neighbor, or husband, as well.


Entry filed under: empathy, parenting principles. Tags: , , , , , .

in the dim light of dawn in response

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Shelly  |  March 5, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    Thank you for you recent posts on unconditionality. I read the Alfie Kohn book when ds was about 8 mos old. Its a wonderful book and was such an eye opener and provided a path. I knew we were doing things differently and wanted other things to be different. I think the most shocking part of the book was no praise. It makes perfect sense but is such a difficult habit (as they all seem to be) to break. I didn’t realize until reading your posts and listening to myself again that I had fallen back into the “good job club”. I’m painfully aware of my yelling and know it needs to stop, but hadn’t even noticed my other extreme. Anyway, thank you for the reminder.
    Your blog is wonderful!! I just came over from npc about a month ago and am getting so much from you. Even on your average days and your clothing challenged days. lol Thank you!!

  • 2. Maryam  |  March 5, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    this is such a timely post for me. last night i decided, to help myself be more present during the nightly intense crying of my almost-4 year old, to pretend that he’s actually using words i can recognize to tell me all about his upsets from the day. i faked it in order to better value his non-verbal communication, and it worked. thank you *so much* for writing about this idea so clearly 🙂


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