living empathy

July 9, 2010 at 10:15 am 3 comments

It can seem tricky using verbal empathy with toddlers and babies. Although I emphatically believe that babies understand everything that their mamas and papas say to them, and that we should be offering them the same verbal empathy and information that we afford the older children and adults in our lives, sometimes it can feel like it is not enough. At every turn there are desirable objects and activities for the young ones among us. So many in fact that often it feels like our entire day is spent directing them away from the things that they want to do.

In a comment yesterday, Martha described the empathy she offers her son:

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.

Which she follows up with helpful information:

“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.”

These are precisely the words I would use, but I know what she means when she says:

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.

It’s true, on the surface it’s a system, a formula to follow, and if you aren’t feeling particularly empathetic when saying these words, it can feel hollow, condescending, and trite. And when you are feeling the feelings along with your child, it can feel like the words don’t come close enough to the power of those feelings. The idea of leaving a truck behind can be heartbreaking, and spoken empathy sometimes just doesn’t cut it.

Especially with younger children and babies I think empathy often must take a larger form. The entire day, not just words and facial expressions, can be structured with empathy in mind. This generally is not a concept embraced by our current culture. Our to-do lists are lengthy, there is pressure to be “more than just a mom”, and there are internal drives that make us want to get in and out of any location quickly, but sometimes the most empathic thing to do when your child is having strong feelings about leaving a toy truck behind is to not leave the truck behind. That is to say, don’t leave. Stay in the store until your boy is ready.

At least sometimes.

Sometimes living a life of empathy can also mean avoiding locations that your child doesn’t want to leave. Our Feeleez shipping lab shares space with a children’s clothing store that offers a dizzying array of in-store toys, and our children never want to leave. So if we do not have the time to offer empathy, information, or possibly wait out the feelings that surround departure, we don’t stop by. In fact, most of our shipping is done in the dark of night when Papa slips out and gets the job done. An empathic, sleep depriving gesture on his part.

To be clear, living empathy does not mean that you give your child everything they want, or that you make every attempt to avoid having to deny them what they want, living empathy is any way that you incorporate your children’s feelings into the structure of your day. Maybe it means that you wear a v-neck shirt so that your baby can nurse on demand. Maybe it means that your toddler has extreme, over-the-top, bed head because brushing her hair was, emotionally, not an option on that particular day. Maybe it means that  you read the same book over and over and over, or you let your arm fall asleep so as not to disturb your exhausted dear.

When Echo was younger, living empathy meant that we kept all little things with their matching big things, because of her very strong feelings that all mamas should be with their babies as much as possible.  In fact, to this day, the mama-baby connection is still so important to her that although she is three, I still handle most of her care. This means that Papa is living empathy every time when he steps aside because Echo wants me to read a story to her, not Papa, or me to lift her up to the toilet, not Papa.

The possibilities for living empathy, once you start looking for them are endless, and many of them are simply practical. Our kids struggle when the day includes lots of errands and lots of buckling in and out of the car seat, so out of empathy for them, it is more practical to make errands as minimal as possible, often not more than one per day. At other times, living empathy is decidedly not practical, but still our preferred choice. I might get a lot more done if I grabbed Echo’s arm and dragged her along instead of waiting while she stops to caress, cradle, and converse with every single fire hydrant between our house and downtown, but I choose to approach it differently. I allow for more time than we need to get to the library just so I don’t have to, even empathically, persuade her to keep moving forward.

Most of us are doing this type of living empathy unconsciously, but often forget the option when it doesn’t come naturally. Ironically, these moments when living empathy is the farthest from your mind, are the times when it can be applied most powerfully.


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

elementary empathy river god

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Martha  |  July 9, 2010 at 11:46 am

    wow, that’s really helpful and so generous. i think we do take the approach, much of the time, that you describe, but thinking of it as “living empathy” will, i think, help me internalize it even more. just as an aside, when i was busy attempting to empathize with our son in the store, the shop owner, who was standing there, i think thought i was … um, not sure what the word is… indulging? my son’s desires. as i was saying “yeah, you really like that truck, etc” he was saying “yeah but you can’t take it with you!” immediately. so i had to laugh to myself about those “empathizing in public” conundrums, which i imagine you have a bit of experience with. thanks again, and cool truck on the post, btw.

  • 2. Joanna Smetanka  |  July 9, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    Thanks for the reminder. I definitely need it sometimes, especially during the busy summer months.

  • 3. Melissa  |  July 10, 2010 at 8:33 am

    Thank you, thank you! I find your blog (and Nathan’s and Kris’s) an endless source of comfort as I struggle with giving my two year old (and myself!) empathy in our daily lives. I am one of those where empathy doesn’t exactly come naturally, but through endless practice and reading others’ real-life examples, I hope that it one day will.


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