Over the last decade or so, the idea of empathy has been ringing bells. Our workplaces have been urging employees to be more emphatic towards customers and clients. It is detrimental to the success of their businesses. They say it should come naturally. However, more often, it doesn’t. It has not been our inner voices. But empathy is an essential skill, it is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy is a good inner voice to give our children. Making empathy our children’s inner voice requires that we willingly open and become honest about our emotions too. We should express our pleasure and disappointments directing it to the specific reasons. We should avoid directing it to our children’s personality. Neither should we direct it to their emotions and emotional reactions.
Towards reasons or actions vs. towards the children’s personality
Directing our pleasure and delight to the reason or action vs. Directing our pleasure and delight to their personality
Your child got an A+. You are naturally delighted by your child’s good academic performance.
When we direct it to the action, we can say something like:
“Thank you for giving your best in this exam. I am proud of how you study your lessons every day. You got the highest mark.”
“Wow! You got an A+. Giving up your screen-time paid off. I admire the sacrifice and discipline you did.”
It is a more emphatic to say we are happy they are putting hard work in school and habitually studying well than simply saying we are happy they are smart. When we tell our children their efforts paid off we are feeling their joy and sharing the triumph that gives them their joyful feeling. Our emotional transparency and empathy becomes a voice that speaks to them. It is this same emotional and emphatic voice that eventually becomes theirs.
Just the same, praising our children for being clean and organized when they keep their rooms kempt is directing our pleasure towards their personality. Appreciating their tidying-up, their cleaning is better. After all, the real source of our delight is their actions, manifested by the outcome of those actions.
Consequently, applauding their personality or smarts alone, makes the accomplishment and actions appear effortless. It does not point to the cause of their or our joy. The feeling of happiness loses its reason. We make our children feel it is “a given”, it’s natural. It is expected. It makes them complacent. It can even give them that sense of entitlement.
Directing our concerns, disappointments, anger or any negative emotions to the reason or action vs. Directing our concerns, disappointments, anger or any negative emotions to their personality
Your child did not follow instructions in a test item. The child answered correctly but the answers were not credited. You may be dismayed.
Saying, “You got the answers right; but maybe you can be more careful with the instructions next time” is different from “You are so careless/stupid.”
The first statement recognizes the correct answers and suggests an action plan. The second attacked the child’s personality. It is quite common in similar situations, that our children are quite aware of their mistakes. They aren’t happy about it too. They are probably unhappier than we already are. An emphatic voice is a statement that will feel our children’s pain too.
Likewise, if their messy room upsets us, it is better to say their messy room upsets us; rather than tell them they are a big mess, a litterbug or darn lazy.
Directing our emotions towards their actions or the reason and object makes it clear to our children how their actions or activities are done; well or unwell. It also gives ample room for improvement. Directing our emotions to their personality, on the other hand, labels our children. It becomes vindictive of who they are. It is a final verdict with no possibility.
Making empathy our children’s inner voice requires us parents to avoid directing our pleasure and disgust on our children’s emotions too.
Towards reasons or actions vs. towards the children’s emotions and emotional reactions
How we direct our feelings and reactions towards our children’s emotions and emotional reactions?
Whenever we tell our children to stop crying, not to show their excitement or not to be angry, we are actually attacking their emotions and emotional reactions.
When we call them cry-babies for crying or scared cats for being frightened or nervous; we are directing not on the reason or action. We are actually directing our feelings to their feelings and their emotional reactions.
But, why do we tell them to stop or not to feel that way? Is their emotional reaction shaming us? Is their excited cheering noisy for us? Is their anger making us feel we did not discipline them; and hence, makes us feel we are failures?
If we want to make empathy our children’s inner voices, we must help them become aware of their emotions. We help them identify their emotions. We encourage them to explore on what caused their emotions. We allow them to feel their emotions. We help them work out those emotions. We make them realize that their emotions are fleeting. It is not permanent.
Peggy O’Mara has said “the way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice”. As our children grow, they have more active neural connections. They are able to create connection and make sense of what goes around them. These interpretation and understanding lends ways for our children to adapt to their surroundings. As our children grow, it holds on those frequently used neural connections. Hence, if we wish empathy as their inner voice; we should spend time speaking to them with understanding and sharing their feelings. We increase the frequency of speaking to them emphatically. We avoid directing our emotional reactions to their personality and fleeting emotions. We tell them what causes our happiness and unhappiness.