The definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I’m pretty sure we’re all on the same page about wanting our kids to develop this trait.
The way I do it is helping Ezra name his own emotions.
When Ezra is crying he’s not showing me that he feels OK, he’s showing me that he currently feels something other than OK. Crying doesn’t signal to me “you’re OK” it signals “you’re angry/upset/frustrated/sad” and I really want my son to learn this. I display empathy by showing him I understand his feelings. I model it. I don’t want to encourage him to repress his emotions. I also don’t want to teach him that as an adult who can see that nothing is actually wrong and he truly is OK, that I have the last say on how he feels.
I do know that most of the time he’s “ok” and that nothing is really wrong. Telling him “you’re ok” is also the truth. But for me the goal isn’t to lord my adult knowingness over him, its to empathize and to teach him empathy in return by modeling it. I truly feel modeling is the way they learn all of this. Less “do as I say not as I do” and more trying to embody my values (the hard part of course is knowing where I’m not embodying my values).
So I tell him “you fell on the floor and now you’re upset and crying.” I also ask him what happened and he seems to be really into showing me and pointing to what upset him. I also quietly discuss how other children are feeling when we see someone else who is upset. I tell him “we can tell that person is sad because they’re crying.” Or “that kid is screaming because they’re angry.” If I am feeling something I tell him. Today I dropped lunch on the ground as I was trying to get us over to the table and I said, “I dropped the food on the floor and I am frustrated.” Expressing it also helped me get over my frustration more quickly.
If I told him “you’re ok” every time he cried about something I wouldn’t be modeling empathy. I wouldn’t be teaching him to name his emotional reactions. I’d actually be saying the opposite of what his emotions are which is teaching him whatever the opposite of empathy is. Personally, I would be really angry at anyone who told me “you’re ok” if I was having a hard time. I would feel brushed off and unacknowledged. I prefer to respect Ezra by trusting that he knows how he feels.
As a two year old his feelings don’t last long and honoring them for what they are hasn’t been an inconvenience to me. I feel like I’m doing good by giving him a deeper understanding of what he and others are feeling based on the signs they are showing. I have taken this approach to Ezra’s emotionally charged reactions since he was about 5 or 6 months old and I first read about respectful parenting, which really resonated with my values. In much the same way that having the name of something gives you power over it in basically every fantasy novel ever, having the name of a feeling gives you power over it. I believe telling a kid that they’re ok when they’re crying teaches them repression rather than giving them the power to know themselves. They’re going to be crying anyway, the least I can do is show some empathy.
I feel confident in my beliefs and intend no shaming of others by sharing my personal views. So I’m going to quote raisedgood.com because they said it so perfectly:
“So here’s the thing, you and me… we’re not going to agree on every single thing. And as free thinkers, that’s how it’s meant to be…. I’m here to share my experience. To learn alongside you. To stumble and fall, to grow and evolve. And boy does that take a shit ton of vulnerability on my part, but I appreciate it does on yours too. To be willing to read a story that may not fully align with your own and say, “that’s ok” …To not go so easily down the “shame” path that we’re conditioned to take and blame the other person for our own choices and feelings. We don’t need to let differences divide us, and we can allow similarities to unite us. We can lean into discomfort and ask what it has to teach us… Because I don’t know your story or your child. I don’t know what your personal circumstances or support network looks like. But one thing I excel at is forging my own path… unapologetically.”