When I was pregnant with my youngest daughter I took my eldest daughter into Ikea in New Haven, CT, to buy some tools. It was a really basic set, maybe 10 tools total, but I was proud of it. I even picked up a fancy screwdriver set online. I had plans in my head to revamp my entire apartment before the new baby came (definitely nesting at the time, I was crazed), and I was excited to put all my own furniture together, hang pictures, pick out curtains, and make my home my own.
At the time I purchased the tools I had no idea how to use them. I bought them anyway. I knew that they would be useful once the furniture arrived, and the fact that I didn’t yet know what to do with them didn’t matter. I’d learn. I’d have to practice, maybe watch some YouTube videos, ask some friends.
When the furniture came I was prepared. I spend three days with my big belly on the floor, hammering and screwing and unscrewing and re-screwing, and at the end I had what I wanted. I’d put everything together myself with help from my sisters, and I was so proud.
It’s sort of the same with teaching empathy to our children – especially to the under 5 crowd, who tends to be a bit more spirited, as I like to call it, than the rest of us. Nothing wrong with spirit, nothing at all. As parents and caregivers though, our own actions are often what make a toddler go from “spirited” to “unruly” or “mean”.
Empathy is a tool. It is one that doesn’t come easy for young children, but can be taught. We must model it. When a toddler hits his parents or another toddler, and we respond lovingly and patiently, we are giving that child a tool.
A 3-year-old most likely isn’t ready to reciprocate kind words in the heat of a tantrum or when another child is playing with a toy she likes – this is natural. This doesn’t mean we should change our tactic. Much like my Ikea set, the fact that a toddler is as yet unable to respond the way we are modeling, should not deter us from showing them what empathetic behavior looks like. When we model kindness, patience, and compassion, we are handing tools to our children that they can store for later use.
When the child grows and is better able to control herself, and finds herself in a heated argument with a friend or even a complete stranger, she can reach into that toolbox that her parents have filled with examples of how to treat others with respect – even when they may be disrespectful to us – and she can apply those tools in her life. She will be independent, secure in her actions, because she will remember (consciously or not), how good it felt when she made a mistake and was still treated with respect by those who cared for her.
Compassion is internally driven. Compassion should be the motivating factor in treating others well, in getting along, in working together. Our goal is not to get our children to blindly obey, but to help them to appreciate for themselves, the benefits of striving to share their world peacefully.
When we yell and hit and shame we are effectively robbing our children of the opportunity to make decisions for themselves – they are behaving the way we want for fear of what will happen if they don’t.
When we model patience and understanding we give them a live show – “Even though you just hit me and I feel upset, I will talk to you with respect, I will allow you to speak, I will support you in making better decisions.”
I have seen it work with my own spirited toddler. Every day it seems, she hits. Or throws. Or sticks her tongue out. Or shuts the light off while someone’s in the bathroom (switch is on the outside because whoever built the house was obviously childless).
Every day I try my damnedest to approach her respectfully. I remember that I have my own toolbox to go into. I dig around and I quickly bring out compassion and pause. I pause and I speak calmly, or we go together for some time-in, or we just hug and breathe.
And every day she surprises me. Like today, we packed a lunch to eat at the museum, and the three of us sat together talking. We had a pack of crackers to share as part of lunch, and we devoured them. I looked down and there was one left in the pack. Ryleigh (eldest) was munching on an apple so I tuned and offered the last cracker to Logan (baby).
Logan looked at the cracker, and then looked up at me. She just nodded her head.
“Huh?” I asked.
“Yew ead it, Mommy. You hun-gee.” You eat it Mommy, you’re hungry.
This was Logan, who five minutes ago had slapped her sister’s leg. Logan, who this morning refused to help me clean her room. Logan, who this afternoon wouldn’t put her clothes on to go to the museum, and ran and screamed and hid while I sat on my bed wanting to cry.
Logan isn’t always ready but she has the tools, because I’m sharing them with her. I am showing her how to be loving even when it’s hard or requires some sacrifice, and she is getting it. She may not always be able to give it back but she’s getting it.
We have the tools, parents. We cannot expect to teach our children not to hit by hitting them; we cannot yell at a child for not completing a task and expect that child to find motivation in our screams.
They need to see what it looks like, they need to see and think: Man, Mommy is really stressed right now but she’s being so patient, she is trying to help me, she loves me, she’s kind.
Of course they won’t say this, but they’ll see it. And when they are ready, they will do it, too.
Kimberly is one of the Positive Parenting Connection Contributors. She is a single mom to two spirited girls – Ryleigh, 9, and Logan, 3. They unschool and spend their days laughing, reading, getting lost on the train, and daydreaming. Their family has been completely transformed by gentle, intentional parenting; and Kimberley now hopes to encourage other parents to learn of its benefits. Kimberley is a freelance writer and owner of the gentle parenting blog,The Single Crunch.
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Original Photo: oakleyoriginals