Being There for Our Children and Others Through Empathic Parenting

By Tamara Parnay

**Originally published in the Winter 2006-07 Balance issue of The Journal of API

Tamara and baby

When I was a child, I was fascinated by people and characters like “The Empath” on the Star Trek television series, who showed great empathy. I wanted to be like them but I was unable to think much beyond my own needs.

Now that I’m a mother, I find myself experiencing the mighty feelings of unconditional love that an attached mother has for her little ones. It is a type of love I once thought I was incapable of giving.

Because I want to be a good role model for my children, I need to extend a certain degree of empathy toward those with whom I cross paths.

The Need to Model Empathy Outside the Family Grows as the Child Grows

Young babies know only a select few individuals, most often their mother, father, and siblings, perhaps a few extended family members. The younger our children are, the more family-focused we may need to be. As people can be self-absorbed as individuals, so can they be “family-absorbed.” This, to a certain degree, is healthy.

Once we have cultivated a secure base for our children, we need to begin to let go, little by little, as our children seek to move out to encounter the world and what it has to offer, good and bad. We need to be sensitive to their cues, wait until they’re ready, and let them go and explore. Meanwhile, we watch and wait and are ready for them with open arms when they return. We intervene if they are in danger of being seriously hurt – physically or emotionally.

As our children start exploring and accompanying us beyond their immediate world, they begin to interact with people outside the family unit: extended family, close friends, acquaintances, and sometimes strangers. Their awareness of how we interact with others also develops.

Even a very young child can pick up on the vibes, positive or negative, that we send out to others. Thus, it seems important to mention that empathic parenting means more than focusing on the needs of our own immediate family. It requires the ability to keep the inner world of our family in perspective with the world outside our little nucleus. It is the ability to see ourselves as everything to our family, yet as just one start in the galaxy of humanity.

I firmly believe that children need us to model empathy toward others, even strangers. Children may be the center of our lives, but they are not the center of the universe. We all have our place in this world, and no one person is the sun that everyone else revolves around. A piece of the picture is missing when we fail to demonstrate empathy toward those outside our family.

Another Child Hurts My Child

Even Attachment Parenting (AP) children hit, shove, and bite. Often they do so when they are asserting their drive for independence and don’t have the verbal skills to properly express themselves: Instead, they use their limbs or teeth. When my child has been hurt, it is easy for me to become angry toward the other child and her parent. Instead of acting on emotion, I remind myself to keep the communication lines open by reaching out to the other parent and child – instead of glaring.

Maybe the parent of the hurtful child has some stressful issues at home, which are impacting the child? Maybe my child provoked the other child! I do not need to take the situation personally. Instead, I can model empathy toward my own child and toward the other child and her parent, as well.

My Child’s Behavior is Negatively Affecting Others

It is not only important to remember my child’s feelings and needs, but also the impact that my child’s behavior has on the feelings and needs of others. For example, when my child is dawdling, causing others to wait, she needs help to speed the process of getting ready. This may entail physically moving her against her wishes.

Ideally, I could use this moment as an opportunity to reconnect with my child by empathizing with her, accepting her negative feelings, and helping her to express them. Next, I can follow up with an age-appropriate explanation of why I chose that action. In doing so, I help her see how her behavior affects those around her.

My Child Witnesses a Parent Screaming at or Spanking a Child in Public

First, I briefly talk with my child about the feelings of all four parties: my child, myself, the parent, and the parent’s child. This conversation may happen on the spot, or later on, depending on the situation and my child’s reaction. I might start by telling my child (four years old) how I feel: “Oh, it makes me so sad to see a parent not being gentle with their child. It also makes me feel scared.” This almost always prompts my daughter to respond with her feelings.

Next, I reassure my daughter that I would not let her be treated that way. I then consider the other child’s feelings: “That child must feel very hurt, sad, and scared right now.” Or I might ask my daughter how she thinks the child is feeling. Next, I address the other parent’s feelings: “The mother must be very tired and frustrated, and she has forgotten how to be gentle with her child.” I ask my daughter why she thinks the mother is not being gentle. My daughter has come up with some very creative suggestions.

I like the idea of talking with the mother (I have more difficulty approaching fathers in situations like this) and offering emotional and tangible support. I can ask if she would like some help (e.g. with getting bags into her cart). If I am not in the position to help, I can say something comforting to the mother along the lines of how tiring and frustrating parenting can be. I must admit, though, that I’m sometimes too shaken up from witnessing this behavior to carry through with this step.

I try to give a sympathetic look to the child without the mother noticing. If the child sees that other adults disapprove of the abuse, the child might feel empowered. On the other hand, if the parent feels I am siding with the child without showing compassion for her situation, she could blame the child for an embarrassing “confrontation” (no matter how gently I approach her) and take it out on the child in private.

If I can find some way to support the parent, it may soften her a bit and perhaps she would feel understood. Then, maybe, just maybe, she would be more inclined to show a little more empathy to her child.

Safety First

Situations in which parents are showing negative behavior toward their children vary greatly in their intensity and may be extremely upsetting to witness. Sometimes, it is wiser to leave the scene immediately, especially when you are accompanied by a child or if the abuse is severe. Of course, the first priority is your child’s well-being – and next, your own.

It is possible that no amount of kindness toward an abusive parent will benefit the child. It can be difficult to gauge what the appropriate action may be. Be cautious and do not put yourself or your child in a dangerous situation.

Someone is Rude to Me

This is a great opportunity to model empathy. Instead of hurling insults, I move away and quietly say to my child, “Wow! I think that person is very unhappy. I wonder why? Maybe she’s had a bad day at work?” I can help my child imagine a cause for the behavior, without taking it personally. If necessary, I can “blow off steam” later by relating the incident privately to my partner or a friend.

When I Need to Stand Up for Myself

If someone cuts ahead of me, I can gently say, “I’m sorry, I don’t think you saw me here. Normally I wouldn’t say anything, but I’m pressed for time, and my children are getting impatient. I would like to return to my place in line. Please excuse me.” My children see me behaving with strength and diplomacy.

Someone Criticizes My Parenting

As an attachment parent, I interact with my children in ways that preserve my closeness to them. Often, it feels as though I am swimming upstream in society with my struggle to be accepted because of my parenting choices. When others criticize my style, it can be difficult. However, I can reframe my assumptions by considering that others are genuinely interested in the welfare of my child and this may soften the blow. I can gracefully listen, nod, and thank them. Maybe I can find a grain of truth in their comments. I don’t have to openly disagree with them, and I certainly don’t have to use their advice!

Perhaps those who criticize my parenting style wish that they would have parented their own children that way. Perhaps, they wanted to be parented this way themselves.

Others Want to Talk with Me about Parenting Issues

People love to give advice. It’s flattering to be asked for help, but it is not to be taken lightly. Giving effective suggestions is an art. Pam Leo, in her book, Connection Parenting, shared a lovely quote: “People don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care.” Sometimes I realize that I was in such a hurry to share my own knowledge by providing quick-fix, gimmicky advice, that I didn’t consider what was really being asked. Does my answer suit the other person in their unique situation? That is the question.

Questions to ask before offering information or suggestions:

  • Does this person want to hear my recommendations? Or is she really asking for support and understanding? Often it is the latter.
  • Am I responding with humility? Or am I jumping at an opportunity to impart my knowledge to someone who has made herself vulnerable?
  • Am I trying to prove her wrong, or am I trying to help her feel “right”?
  • Do I accept that what the person is saying is important to her even if it doesn’t seem important to me? Am I validating or dismissing her concerns?
  • Am I able to qualify my answers to avoid making categorical statements?
  • Am I willing to admit when I haven’t found an answer, and am I able to brainstorm to help find more answers, including referring the person to someone else?

Providing helpful suggestions requires gathering information through asking questions. Only then can I share helpful ideas and possible solutions that truly address the person’s needs. Giving truly useful advice involves a good deal of listening.

The Final Pieces of the Empathic Equation

To live empathically, I must be consistently sensitive to the needs and feelings of others, even when there are no witnesses. Children, are very perceptive and pick up on false appearances. If actions lack integrity and consistency, children will be unclear whether to believe what they hear or what they see.

There’s one more person to consider in this Empathy Equation: me. I need to be understanding of my failings as a parent. I cannot always be empathic toward my family and others. Some days I’m tired and impatient and I lack energy to be the parent I want to be. Sometimes I’m curt and cross with my children, husband, and others. I’m not a perfect parent, or spouse, or member of society, and I need not be. I need only do my best at any given moment. If I can be gentler with myself, then I can be gentler with others, and vice versa.

Like the Empath who expended too much energy and nearly died trying to save a member of the Star Trek crew, I cannot go around keenly feeling others’ pain. Here, I must find balance.

Finally, I need “balance with the outside world” alongside “balance in my family.” I need to cultivate a village mentality extending out from my own home, through my AP world, and into my community. It is vital that my children see how empathy can extend beyond our family. Empathic parenting is peaceful parenting. In showing empathy toward other people, I not only create and spread peace and harmony in our world – even just a little bit – but I also act as a goodwill messenger for API.

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