Although not a new phenomenon, there seems to have been an increase in incidents of racism, sexism, xenophobia, ableism, LGBTQ discrimination, sexual assault, bullying, and hate crimes as of late. As an activist, I feel compelled to get out there and help change the world. As a mother of 3 young boys, I feel immobilized in my desire to be an agent of change by my family obligations — or am I?
Lauren Gottschalk-Scher, a mother of 3 young boys, attended Hampshire College and the Parsons School of Design. After working in fashion design, she became a stay-at-home mother and a devotee of Attachment Parenting. Lauren has combined all of her interests, passions, and personal and professional experiences in her company, Vida Leche Amor, which ethically produces fashionable clothes designed for full-term breastfeeding and beyond.
The first early milestone in developing empathy is establishing a secure, attached, and loving relationship with a parent or primary caregiver.
When you respond to your baby’s cry with empathy, sensitivity, and understanding, your baby not only learns that he is worthy of love, care, and attention, but learns the behaviors that will determine how he will treat others in the future. Understanding that a baby does not yet have the capacity for self-soothing and responding emphatically to a baby’s cries helps him establish a secure attachment and sets the foundation for healthy relationships and the development of empathy in the future.
Breastfeeding on demand, day and night, was important to me in caring for my infants, not only because it helped to establish my milk supply and ensure proper growth, but because it set the stage for healthy emotional development by meeting my babies’ emotional needs. Babies don’t just want to be close to their mothers — they need to be close to them for comfort and safety. I was told several times, “He’s just nursing for comfort,” or “Don’t let him use you as a pacifier,” but I continued because breastfeeding was my babies’ favorite method of soothing, feeling secure and loved, and bonding with me.
I also coslept with my babies well into toddlerhood because their nighttime needs necessitated being close to me, both for breastfeeding and comfort. My memories of having extreme difficulty sleeping as a child — and now as an adult — and being excessively afraid of everything, especially at night, made me acutely empathic to my babies’ nighttime needs. Cosleeping until they felt ready to sleep on their own and breastfeeding on demand until they were developmentally ready to wait helped build secure attachment and contributed to their sense of self-worth as people who deserved to be loved and comforted.
Understanding my children’s developmental needs and responding compassionately will lay the foundation for them to grow into empathic children and adults.
Learning From a Parent’s Reactions
The second early milestone in developing empathy is beginning to use social referencing, which begins at around 6 months of age. When your baby is introduced to a new person or situation, he will look to you to gauge your response through your facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language, all of which will greatly influence how your baby responds. Social referencing not only gives your baby information about individual people and situations — it helps wire his brain to process the world around him.
To help your baby develop into an empathic person, it is important to receive others with an open mind and to respond with empathy.
As a rule, I try not to rush to judgement or a harsh reaction when other people upset me. Since having kids, this has become even more important to me. Although it’s difficult to imagine that your 6-month-old is affected when you get upset by a cashier’s rude behavior, social referencing at this age helps set a foundation for how your child will interact with others later in life. When I find myself upset by someone’s actions, I try to take a step back, consider what may be going on in that person’s life that may have caused them to inadvertently upset me, and strive to give them the benefit of the doubt and react with compassion.
As a white woman, it has always been extremely important for me to be aware of how institutionalized and ingrained racism, sexism, and discrimination subtly influence our everyday behaviors and work to overcome them. As a mother who strives to raise her kids to be agents of change in our society, this is even more important.
As a child, I vividly remember riding in the car with a family member who locked the doors each time we passed a black man walking on the streets. This behavior instilled a racist fear in me that was also reinforced by subtle and overt racism in our society on a daily basis. As an adult dedicated to ending racism, it is important for me to acknowledge when racist feelings arise, process these feelings, and continue to grow and learn so I can do better going forward.
As a mother, it is important for me to understand that even subtle facial expressions and body language have an effect on how children as young as 6 months old learn to experience and process the world around them. It is important to overcome inherent racism and discrimination as much as possible and to prioritize having positive interactions with many people of different backgrounds to help dismantle these oppressive systems in the future generation.
Development of Self-Awareness
The third early milestone in developing empathy is recognizing oneself in the mirror, which signifies that a child understands himself as a person who is separate from his caregiver. This occurs at 18-24 months of age.
It is extremely important to treat your child as an individual with individual needs and wants from the moment they are born. Your child is not an extension of you or even the same as an older sibling. It is important to get to know your baby by keeping him close, interacting with him frequently, and responding compassionately when he cries. You will get to know your baby’s unique temperament and needs, learn to parent in the way that best suits your baby, and set the stage for your baby to recognize himself as an individual, which will eventually help him to develop empathy toward others.
As a mother of spirited, intense children, I had to recognize that my babies’ needs were different from other babies’ needs, especially at night. I treated my children as individuals and rejected parenting advice that wouldn’t work for my babies. For example, my 14-month-old still wakes up several times during the night wanting to breastfeed and needs to be comforted back to sleep. Because I recognize that he is an individual with needs that are equal to mine, respect that he has a temperament and needs that are different from other babies, and realize his developmental inability to fulfill these needs on his own, I have made the conscious and informed decision to continue to cosleep and breastfeed him throughout the night. I use empathy to imagine how he as a unique and separate person feels and meet his needs compassionately, knowing that I am providing the security he needs to learn to self-soothe and become independent when he is developmentally ready. Although it’s not always easy, I am confident that my efforts will help him grow into an empathic child and adult.
So much of a toddler’s life is out of their control. Understanding the frustration of being unable to control your surroundings is essential in helping your toddler develop a strong sense of self as separate from you. I try to give my toddler choices whenever I can to give him a sense of control. It not only gives him a sense of empowerment that helps build a strong sense of self-esteem and capability, it also helps take the sting out of decisions I have to make for him.
Body autonomy is also extremely important to me in raising empathic children. While my toddler can’t make all the decisions about his body — his teeth need to be brushed and his diapers need to be changed — I let him make non-essential decisions about his body for himself. I love kissing my toddler’s cheeks, but he is not always in the mood for kisses. When he pushes my face away from his, I respect his body autonomy and don’t force him to accept my kisses. I never force my children to show affection when they don’t want to, even if friends or relatives find it disrespectful. This teaches my children that their body belongs only to them, and the same goes for all people.
Everyone gets to choose what they want to do with their own body, and we must all respect other people’s boundaries. When my toddler doesn’t want his teeth brushed or his diaper changed, I try to find a way for him to work with me to accept what needs to be done instead of using physical force. I also find it important to explain to my babies and toddlers what I am doing, especially when it is something involving taking care of their body. For example, I will say, “I am going to give you a bath now. I am washing your hair. Help me wash your face.” This helps my toddler feel like an active participant in an activity instead of feeling like it is something happening to him.
I always use the word “penis” instead of slang words. This helps to encourage body awareness and pride in oneself and one’s body. Using anatomically correct words for body parts and speaking frankly about them without shame has been shown to help protect children against sexual abuse. I also believe that it will help prevent my children from objectifying body parts and/or women in the future. I also believe that breastfeeding my toddler openly in front of my older boys will help prevent them from fetishizing breasts and objectifying women in the future.
Recognizing That Other People Have Feelings
The fourth early milestone in developing empathy is developing a theory of mind. At 18-24 months, a child will realize that just as he has his own thoughts and feelings, other people have their own thoughts and feelings that are separate and possibly different from his own.
To encourage emotional literacy and the development of empathy, I always strive to name the emotions my children are experiencing. In the midst of a tantrum, I may tell my child, “You are mad, because I won’t let you walk in the street.” Giving words to their emotions will help your child process their feelings and explain how they feel in the future.
I also find it important to let my children experience a full range of emotions, no matter how uncomfortable it is for me. When your child is upset about something seemingly small, it’s so much easier to tell him, “It’s really not a big deal,” than it is to support him through his seemingly silly, but real-to-him, emotions. Put yourself in your toddler’s shoes — a green cup may seem small to you, but in that moment, it is really important to him. I don’t always give in to cup color preferences, but I always try to support the feelings surrounding them. I may say, “You are sad, because your green cup is dirty,” and then hold my child while he cries. I try to avoid the phrase, “It’s OK,” when my child is hurt or upset because it minimizes and dismisses their feelings.
Instead of condemning anger, I try to redirect it in an acceptable way. If my toddler hits, I may say, “You are angry, but we use gentle hands.” I let my children cry or yell and, as a last resort if necessary, hit a pillow. I also name my own feelings, especially when I am getting upset by my children’s behavior. It helps them solidify that others have feelings separate from their own, identify and name feelings, and shows them that their actions have an impact on others. When children are fighting and I need to step in to mediate, I make sure to identify how each person is feeling: “You are sad, because you want a turn with the ball. She is mad because, you tried to take the ball before she was done using it.”
A person’s capacity for understanding and experiencing other people’s emotions is directly related to his own ability to experience, identify, and communicate feelings and emotions. Giving your toddler the words to express feelings and the support and space to feel emotions will help lay the groundwork for empathy in the future.
I am human and very far from perfect. The strategies I have outlined above are the ideal I strive toward, but I lose it on my kids sometimes. Let’s be honest — I lose it on my kids on a near daily basis. But I am trying.
I own my mistakes, and I apologize to my children. If I yell at them, I will say, “I’m sorry. I was very angry and I yelled at you. That was not a good choice, and it’s not OK to yell like that. I’m sure it hurt your feelings and made you scared. I love you, and I don’t want to make you feel hurt or scared. Next time, I am going to take a deep breath and be calmer. I am going to try to do better.”
Apologizing to my children and taking responsibility for my actions not only shows them that I value them and care about their feelings, it models the behaviors and traits, including empathy, that I want them to develop.
It also empowers and encourages them to stand up and speak out about things that are not acceptable in the future, whether it is the way they are being treated, or the way they see someone treating another person.
A Protest Against Discrimination
I am reinvigorated in my commitment to raising my children to maximize their capacity to feel empathy as personal protest against the rampant discrimination we face as a nation. As a mother, I may not be able to organize and mobilize in the way I feel called to right now, but I can feel confident that I am contributing by raising the next generation to fight hate with love and understanding. And that is potentially the most important job that anyone can be called to do.