In the last 7 days, there have been a series of events that have caused me to pause and consider empathy in a new light. As I was sitting amongst a group of acquaintances last week the question was posed “what is the most important personality trait”. I’m not convinced that one trait overshadows the rest, but I sat and considered the question for a few moments and replied, “empathy”.
This post is certainly different than most I have written on this site but I feel like it fits. Because as a father and a husband this is a topic that I am seeing more of a need to talk about and consider every day. You will probably disagree with some portion of this post but that is okay. I’d ask you to comment about it below so that we can have a healthy discussion and maybe in some small way help the conversation move forward.
As I woke up this morning and turned on the news I was disheartened that once again a black man was shot and killed by two officers. This incident was captured on camera and appears to show excessive force. When these incidents happen I ask myself, ‘why’? How? Who was in the wrong? Is there something I’m missing? It broke my heart to watch the victim’s wife plead for justice with her son sobbing at her side.
With these images racing through my mind all morning I read Seth Godin’s latest blog post called No one is unreasonable. This line, in particular, struck me: “No one is unreasonable. Or to be more accurate, no one thinks that they are being unreasonable.” Can this be true? If it is, then who was “right” in the situation above? In situations like these – and the multitude of others where we feel wronged – can either party understand the narrative and perspective of the other?
That may seem like an extreme example to share when talking about empathy, but I’m convinced that the if we can find “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (the definition of empathy) we will come a little bit closer to peace. As a dad, I need this same empathy to raise my daughter. To seek to understand what it is she is asking and what her developing mind could be perceiving in that moment. I need empathy to understand why the other parent at the playground isn’t paying attention to their child the way I think they should.
If I can’t be empathetic in those minor examples then how can I expect to begin to understand what is is like to be the family of the grieving -or- the family of the officer. What amount of understanding will it take for our society to begin to heal and make positive strides forward? I find myself each day listening more to the sentiments behind someone else’s stories; at work, at home, and in public. I am seeking out opportunities to surround myself with unfamiliar worldviews and narratives. In doing so, I am hoping to understand others and seeking to feel what they are feeling.
So what does empathy in parenting look like? Both in the doing and the teaching.
In the doing, I think it is realizing that our kids are people too. Their needs and wants don’t always align with ours. And just because we are the parent or the adult doesn’t mean we are right. Take for example Juniper (our daughter) asking me for a drink of water in a whining manner. On the surface it may seem like that is an unacceptable and annoying thing for her to be doing, but what I didn’t tell you is that I didn’t hear her ask politely because I was too busy staring at my phone – so she resorted to whining. In my worldview (all the missed signals and distraction), I thought she was just being a toddler when in reality I was the one ignoring her.
I am currently reading a book that explains the above example this way. Our children have an emotional love tank, the more things that we do to show them that they are cared for and loved (in their way, not ours) the better behavior we will experience. But if we ignore the cues and ways in which they feel loved the tantrums and misunderstandings will pile up. You see we need to focus our families on caring for each other and building relationships just like we need to do that outside the home.
In the teaching of empathy, we must remember that example is the best way to teach something. So make sure you are decent at the doing before trying to teach. But there are other ways as well that we can teach in the day to day. First, we should watch how we talk about others. And I don’t just mean our friends and family. How we talk about politicians, public figures, and news stories teaches our kids how we view others. If we are constantly spewing out how someone else is behaving contrary to our own world-view than we aren’t showing understanding. I am not saying that we must agree with another individual’s behavior but we must be careful how we frame our words around these things so as not to tear them down.
Another way to teach empathy is through conversations with our kids when they are facing issues with others. We can guide the conversation in a way that will allow them to seek to understand as to why someone would treat them that way. Once again not condoning poor behavior but seeking to understand why we don’t see eye-to-eye.
It may sound as though I am encouraging compromising or brushing injustice under the rug. That is not my intent. I am simply trying to encourage us all to understand the other before hurling accusations. I am trying to start a conversation where we are talking to each other rather than at each other. I want myself and my family to be one that seeks first to understand and then to reconcile.