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Empathetic. Yep. You read that correctly. We should always react to misbehavior with empathy before we use consequences. Hold on! you might be thinking. I’m angry when my kids scream at me! I hate being embarrassed in public when they won’t obey. Well, the good news is that you are normal. I feel the same way! Of course we feel anger and frustration when our kids misbehave. However, using this anger to try to scare our kids into shape can have some serious side effects.
In order to illustrate this point, imagine yourself as a college student. You are working closely with a professor you admire on a research project. This professor has a great reputation. You are honored to be working with her. So far, your project has gone well. You feel a sense of elation every time the professor notices your hard work. One day you are careless, and you make a mistake that will set you back at least a week. She finds out and raves that she warned you to be careful. She rants about how terrible it is that time is wasted, and she knew she shouldn’t have trusted a student. With a look of disgust, she lectures you about how this is your mistake and you must fix it. Anyone would be crushed. Some of us would even lose our respect for this professor and find something to be angry with her for. You might even try to get back at your professor for the way she has treated you. You might think, “Hey my mistake wasn’t bad enough to deserve that type of treatment. What’s her problem?”
When we react this way to our kids, it makes them feel like it is us against them. This is when kids might think, “My parents are so dumb. They have so many stupid rules. It wasn’t my fault anyway,” and on, and on, and on. Yet, it is common for parents to talk like the professor in the above scenario! Making a mistake and suffering the consequences is already hard! Kids don’t need adults to rub salt on the wound. In fact, people in general aren’t motivated to change by those who are constantly nagging and criticizing. People who truly motivate others see past mistakes in the present to focus on successes in the future.
I learned this lesson the hard way. As a brand new teacher, I didn’t have many discipline skills. I would attempt to use my anger to scare kids into shape. The result was that I felt terrible about myself, and I still had a rowdy class. My anger didn’t earn their respect. They needed to know that I truly cared about them. When I started showing empathy, I saw dramatic changes.
One day, I looked around my classroom and saw almost all of my students busily working on a writing project I had assigned. One boy was staring at the wall. I decided to wait and see if he would begin on his own. After about 10 minutes, he still hadn’t made any effort.
I walked over to his desk and said, “You have about 10 minutes left to work today. Don’t forget, this project is due on Friday!”
I walked away. A few minutes later, he looked exactly the same as before I had approached him. I tried again. “What’s going on? Are you stuck?” I asked.
“No. He replied. I don’t want to write right now.”
I was surprised by his bluntness. Temptation to talk to him about the importance of grades nagged at me, but luckily I had been learning about the power of empathy, so an idea popped into my head.
“That’s hard,” I said. “Can I tell you a secret?” He eagerly nodded. “I hate grading tests,” I admitted.
He looked surprised. “Yup. It takes such a long time! It’s something I just have to do though. I know it stinks to do something you don’t enjoy.” I looked at the clock. “We only have 5 minutes left before we move on to something else. Do you think you can work on your project for those 5 minutes?”
“I guess,” he said. He then worked on his project until we were finished. As a bonus, he worked on it the next day too!
My reminder about time pressures didn’t make an ounce of difference on that student’s work ethic. What he needed in that moment was a little understanding. Once I leveled with him, he realized that it’s OK to not like something. He felt understood and was willing to work with me. Had I continued to nag him about due dates, or said something like, “You need to start working! I told you already!” he would have continued staring at the wall. Believe me, I had tried that in the past.
In my experience with my student, I was able to use empathy to stop a misbehavior. In other situations it might look a little different. Let’s look at how a parent might respond with empathy in the following scenarios:
|A teenager is at school and sends his mom this text; Hi Mom! I forgot my homework that’s due today! It’s on my desk, can you bring it?||Oh no! I know you worked hard on that. I have a lot to do today and won’t be able to bring it. I hope you can work something out with your teacher! Good luck.|
|A three-year-old hit her friend. Her dad is going to have her sit with him, so she won’t hurt anyone else.||Bummer! You’ll need to sit by me now. (The toddler becomes angry.) It’s hard to have to sit out! Maybe next time you’ll be able to play longer.|
|Sammy and Lucy didn’t come when you called yesterday at the park. Today they are asking to go to the park again.||Oh, this is sad. You took a long time to come back to me when we were there yesterday. I don’t have time for that today!|
Using empathy is hard. Even more so when we are tired, angry, or reaching the end of our ropes! How can we be empathetic in these situations? My advice is to practice. Choose a phrase that is simple and general. (“Uh-oh,” “Bummer,” and ”How sad,” are favorites of mine.) Use your phrase over and over. As you become better at using empathy before offering consequences, it will be easier to branch out to use other phrases, but this isn’t necessary. Another tool to help is imagery. Think of a situation in which your children often misbehave. Imagine this scenario happening. Think about how you normally feel in this situation. Now imagine yourself reacting with empathy before issuing a consequence. Be sure to imagine reacting with real sadness for the child. Sarcasm will backfire. You will find that using empathy is much easier after imagining it first.
It will be hard to change old habits. I know it is for me. As you work on this skill and begin to see the rewards, you will be incredibly grateful that you did! When we show sadness at our children’s misbehavior, it shows them that we are on their side! We show them that we feel sad for them when they mess up. We realize how hard it is to deal with consequences. If kids are given empathy, they will be more open to thinking about their choices. They will see consequences as a natural effect of their choices. They will see their poor decision as the enemy. As you implement this skill your relationship with your children will thrive, discipline will be just a little bit easier, your kids will see you as their ally, and, best of all, you will feel like a better version of yourself.
Here is an article that will give you a mindset to make empathy a little easier.
I learned about the power of empathy through Love and Logic. If this is a skill you want to learn more about, I highly recommend their books! To learn more about why empathy is a powerful tool, click here.