elementary empathy

July 8, 2010 at 9:03 am 10 comments

In our world empathy is everything. We could not have the happy family we enjoy without it. Our blood pressure would be sky high without it. Our girls would be crabby and mean without it. But what is it?


Empathy is the capability to share another being’s emotions and feelings.

Not to be confused with sympathy: Sympathy is the feeling of compassion, concern and/or pity for another, the wish to see them better off or happier. (For more of my thoughts on empathy versus sympathy, see here.)

But what does empathy actually look like? Here are some scenarios. The actual empathy will be set in italics.

Scenario 1: Echo (3) crash lands in the grass, starts to cry.

Me: Oh gosh! Are you hurt?

Echo: Yeah! I fell!!

Me: Yeah, you did. What’s hurting?

Echo: My leg! Waaah!

Me: Oh ouch.

Echo: My leg got all bent up, and it hurts.

Me: Owie. You didn’t like landing like that.

Echo: No.

Scenario 2: Xi (7) comes to me after an argument with Bella.

Me: Hi honey. Are you sad? You look sad. What happened?

Xi: Bella and I got in a fight.

Me: Oh darn.

Xi: I didn’t want to give her this shell because I already gave her two shells. And then she kicked me.

Me: Oh. Pretty scary huh?

Xi: Yeah.

Me: You don’t like it when Bella is mad at you do you.

Xi: No. And she kicked me right in the back and I ran away.

Me: Oh man. Ouch. Is it still hurting?

Xi: No, not really.

Me: Are you still sad about it? (Rubbing her back)

Xi: Yeah.

Me: Shoot.

Scenario 3: The lego robots that Bella (9) has been working on fall to the carpet and break.

Bella: GRRRRRRRR! (Throws herself on the floor, thrashes about)

Me: Oh man! They fell huh?

Bella: Yes. (Through gritted teeth)

Me: You’re mad.

Bella: Yes. (Crying)

Me: Oh, REALLY mad. You worked really hard on those.

Bella: Yeah. I worked on them all morning and now they’re worthless.

Me: Yeah, I saw you working really hard. And now you’re really frustrated, it feels like all that work for nothing huh?

Bella: Yeah.

Me: That’s not how you wanted it to end up. Shit. ( Back rubbing, hair petting, hugs)

This is what the words look like, but they only work, meaning they only feel like empathy, when you actually feel them, feel the feelings of the kids. In fact empathy doesn’t require words, it can also happen with body postures and facial expressions.

Something to note as well is that the scenarios above do not involve fixing. In order for empathy to have an effect it is best delivered as a pure substance. Moving too quickly to a solution ( a bandaid, or help rebuilding the robots) dilutes the power of empathy, even rendering it useless. Children might want help with their situation, but that comes in time, rushing through their emotions straight to the fix it job is usually extremely frustrating, and often increases the strength of the existing feelings. Only when they feel completely heard, (felt, really), are children even ready to move on.

Sometimes, waiting for the child to be ready to move on takes a long time. A really long time. Self-empathy, when you’re tired of holding and rubbing backs, and ready to go back to blogging, or making dinner, or knitting, is essential. For this scenario:

Oh man. I’m tired of this. I’m ready to go back to what I was doing.

A little dose of self-empathy goes a long way in being able to continue offering empathy to your children.


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

how to catch a hamster living empathy

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. altonwoods  |  July 8, 2010 at 9:21 am

    I once had the distinction between sympathy and empathy explained to me like this…

    rowing up next to someone elses boat, you notice that there’s a hole in theirs…

    sympathy says “I’m really sorry about your problem,I hope everything works out okay”

    whereas empathy say’s, “I had a hole in my boat at one time, this is what I did about it or how I fixed it”

    I suppose it’s typical for a man to think in terms of “fixing it” and for women to be inclined to “feel it with you” can’t we do both?

    • 2. nataliechristensen  |  July 8, 2010 at 10:11 am

      I think the empathy version of the rowboat scenario would have nothing to do with the hole at all. “Oh I see you have a hole in your boat. How do you feel about that? Bummed out? Yeah, that’s pretty sucky.”

      But I think we can do both, meaning “feel it with you” and “fix it” if that is desired by the person in the boat. Although the fixing part would not be considered empathy, rather simply “help”, and usually is only considered helpful if the person wants help and has already had their feelings fully acknowledged.

      A: “Oh man, you seem pretty upset about that hole in your boat. That’s so frustrating to be out on the lake on a beautiful day only to watch your vessel fill up with water.”
      B: “Yeah, I am so dissapointed. I wanted it to be the perfect day and was looking forward to rowing across the lake.”
      A. Oh crap. That is a bummer.

      waiting… time passes, more empathy.

      A. “That happened to me once. Would you like help fixing it?”

      I think both but separate is a good policy. When I am upset I am actually offended when someone tries to fix it for me right away.

  • 3. krista  |  July 9, 2010 at 7:03 am

    I used to think it was a typical “male” thing to “fix” as a first reaction as well. After spending much time observing though, I think that is a misconception. I have seen/heard myself and many women I know, jump to finding a solution or to make feelings “go away” by fixing, many, many, many times, instead of empathizing first. I think “fixing” is generally a cultural thing. It’s what we are taught to do in our society. See a problem: fix it. Someone’s upset? Fix them. Or, even more commonly in my observation, belittle or “play down” what they are feeling: “Oh, it’s not that bad…. no big deal, look, it’s not worth getting upset about…..”. I have very few women in my life (like, 2), who know what empathy is, let alone how to offer it purely without fixing or many other non-empathy responses.
    Just thought that might be an interesting point to bring up.

  • 4. krista  |  July 9, 2010 at 7:09 am

    I forgot, the other point I wanted to raise is that “fixing” is not a “bad” thing….. Finding resolution to problems is part of life. It can be just as important as empathy. But I agree with Natalie that the order of things is really important. For us to be truly open and receptive to a solution or suggestion or “fixing”, it is so often crucial for our feelings and our needs to be fully heard, first. Once we are connected and know it’s OK to be feeling what we’re feeling (and can continue to feel that way as long as we need to), we feel more open to talking about solutions.

  • 5. Martha  |  July 9, 2010 at 7:55 am

    The scripts are helpful, thanks. Do you have any suggestion for those moments when a toddler, just beginning to talk and understand feelings can sometimes be identified with words, encounters numerous impulses to have certain things, go certain places, etc. I feel pretty comfortable with talking back what I perceive to be his desires, “yeah, you really want to take that truck home. You’ve had fun playing with it here, you like snapping the doors on and off, you’ve gotten connected to it,” etc. and then with attempting to provide information i.e. “the truck belongs to the store owner and he keeps it here for all kids to play with when they visit. Those other kids will want time with it, too.” etc. Somehow I don’t feel that this approach really gets to the heart of it, not because it doesn’t “work,” which depending on how you interpret that word is true sometimes, but because it feels a bit systematic. As you know, toddlers and kids have so many impulses everyday that do not resolve in the direction they want them to. It’s a bit different from the type of situations you describe here, so I wondered if you had any insights. Thanks, and really enjoy your, and now Nathan’s, blog.

  • 6. Myers  |  July 9, 2010 at 11:54 am

    Beautiful — I loved reading through these and am printing them out to help them distill in my head/heart. I was actually just practicing empathy with my little eight-month-old this morning — he doesn’t like being on his back to have his diaper changed. Your dialogues here really helped me with my language. I mean, I FEEL empathy for him, and can put myself in his place easily, but I was having some trouble verbalizing that to him, and kept falling into the trap of, “Oh, this will be over soon. It’s okay.” And that’s not empathy, and it’s not how I truly want to communicate with him. So, again, your examples helped a lot. And in further help, do you have any book recommendations beyond Alfie Kohn’s?

    Thank you again, Natalie! I know it takes time to write these out, and they are much appreciated!

  • 7. Debbie  |  July 9, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    Thank you for this. We have been really working with empathy and having examples of situations and the scripts is very helpful.

  • 8. Penny  |  July 10, 2010 at 11:22 am

    I read this and laughed out loud, because the only part I am good at is the “darn. shoot. shit” part! And NOT in the right context. I am trying though, every day!

  • 9. obedience « Talk Feeleez  |  July 23, 2010 at 8:12 am

    […] 4. Use empathy as a way to teach empathy. “Good” behavior or obedience, can be achieved by encouraging empathic behavior. A child that can recognize feelings as they occur for others automatically considers how their choices are contributing to those feelings. This often results in actions that we have come to consider “polite” or “proper”. A child that recognizes another’s pain and feels bad for bumping into them will naturally apologize. An enforced Say your sorry! isn’t necessary. When given the information that Aunt Flo feels sad when kids chase her cat, an empathic child will, more likely than not, stop chasing the cat. A rule that declares NO CAT CHASING isn’t required. The most effective way to develop empathy in children is to treat them with empathy. […]

  • 10. In the Throes of Surrender | k.foley wellness  |  April 29, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    […] fascinated by Nonviolent Communication and Empathetic parenting. It seems kind of ridiculous, the conversation you might have with a child that’s flipping out. You’re just… stating facts. Not […]


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