Raising Empathy

Empathy is at the root of meaningful connection.  One of my greatest wishes for my children is that they have an increasing capacity to feel where another is at.  It bears heavily on their ability to comfort, understand and engage in non-judgmental, meaningful dialogue.

In community, our children can’t help but increase their capacity for empathy.  This week, in spite of how exhausting the process is, I am reminded that this is one of the benefits of large families, dayhomes and family-style childcare.  

Little Peanut* had a rough week.  She just turned one and this was her first week of full-time care, 7:45 to 5:00.  In spite of a very successful period of transition in, she needed constant comfort on these long days.  I wore her in a sling or carrier for virtually all her waking hours.  She slept for 20 – 30 min each day at the most.  If I sat, lifted up another baby or got too occupied with the other children, she cried.  It was taxing for all of us and I was very happy to see her turn a corner on Wednesday, when things began to get a bit better instead of worse.

Peanut and I were not facing the biggest challenge, however.  My youngest, a 3-year-old we will call Suzie, and Maggie, an only child who just turned 4, were overwhelmed by it all.  Suzie was impossible to get along with, attention-seeking and rebelling at every turn.  Understandably, she wanted her Mom’s attention and time.  Maggie, who would have liked to play with Suzie, was disappointed and bored.  She arrived each day with an introverted, sad posture and took a while to engage and play.  She often asked me to get the babies to sleep so that we could get on with our day – at 9 a.m.  Resentment was building.

I did my best.

I read stories while standing behind an armchair of preschoolers so I could sway and pat while they held the book and flipped the pages.  But they didn’t want the story, they wanted the experience of the story – the cuddle, the conversation about what is on each page, the opportunity to correct my intentional mistakes, the turns on my lap, the quiet time.

We did crafts and music time.  The crafts were a bit of a frustration because I couldn’t help much and the music times were short.  We played games that I could do while standing up.  They were less gratifying, but better than nothing.  Unfortunately, the bitterly cold weather had us trapped inside until Thursday.

Mostly, I kept talking.  When anger began to surface, I kept reminding everyone that Peanut was scared.  She was worried about why her Mom wasn’t with her and she didn’t understand why she was at a different house during the day.  She wasn’t used to big kids and their noise because she doesn’t have big sisters at home.  She needed us to help her feel safe.  At this time, she needed me to comfort her.  When Peanut felt better, she would want to go and play.

We also had a couple good chats about what happens with our own feelings when Peanut is crying.  We all confessed that we feel a bit upset when she is sad, that it is hard to relax and have fun.  We talked about what we find comforting when we are upset and I tried to find ways to involve them in helping her feel better… even if it was just to sing her a song or remember our quiet voices, and even if it didn’t work.

My bigger girls, home from school later in the day, were better at understanding.  They are marginally older at almost 5 and 7, but they have grown up with a younger sister.  Waiting for Mom to deal with a little one is a life reality for them.  They also have a growing set of skills around helping a younger one feel better.

We live in an increasingly disconnected culture.  As adults, we often do not know how to handle our feelings around the personal anguish of others.  We awkwardly stand by, mute, or become resentful of the personal inconvenience caused by another’s suffering.  Even our desire to “help” is sometimes more a desire to “fix” so that we are no longer held up by someone’s pain.  Think about what happens when personal turmoil surfaces in the workplace or in business.  Our vulnerabilities and imperfections, common to our human experience, may be scathingly disregarded as weakness or flags of incompetence.

Your child’s community is important.  I would challenge you to think about how it involves children of other ages, abilities and walks of life.  Don’t pack up and leave when the baby starts to cry.  Let your child feel that it is okay to be present when someone is sad.  Don’t just look at the floor when the playdate friend throws a tantrum over leaving.  Help your child think through what is going on and encourage them to be understanding.  Point out the emotion behind the action.  Make a playdate with a child much younger than your child once in a while.  Offer to baby sit for a new mom so that your children can be part of the experience.

(If you’d like to look further into experiences with newborns, Roots of Empathy is an excellent classroom program in Canada built on teaching children through experience with a newborn baby.  In Alberta you can sign up to volunteer with your baby at a local health unit.)

I have to believe, amidst the guilt I sometimes feel for my divided time and the challenges my Suzie faces, it has been very good for her to have younger “den siblings” in her house all day.  She is growing an empathetic capacity that will serve her very well in the future.

Perhaps, someday, she will understand.

*Clearly, I do not divulge the real names of the children in my care out of respect for those families I work with.

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