Teaching Empathy to My Boys


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Favorite picture ever of my fellas.

Jackson is now five years old and will periodically have emotional outbursts. Sometimes I can easily walk him through them and get him to understand the situation so he won’t be so upset or offer him alternative solutions to whatever he’s objecting to. Recently he got on this kick that he wanted me to do something for him (I forget now what it was, but it was something simple like getting him out of his car seat or fixing him a snack) and not his daddy. I was busy with Myles (who is about to be two years old) so Bill was trying to tend to Jackson. He pitched a fit when his dad tried to do whatever it was and hollered that he liked me better and just had to have me. I tried to talk him down and explain how it didn’t matter who did this task for him and that he needed to be nice to his daddy because he loves him. He just would not stop. I could tell that it was hurting Bill’s feelings so I told Jackson that. “You’re hurting Daddy’s feelings. You wouldn’t want Daddy to say that to you, would you?” I asked. He said no but continued to fuss, tears and all. I try my best to keep calm when he loses his mind like this and I think I held it together pretty well. It was upsetting me though because he really was being mean to his Daddy. 

I finally got him to understand somewhat and he calmed down a little bit. It was almost time for bed and I wanted him to apologize to his daddy and give him a hug. I didn’t want him to go to bed thinking it was okay to behave that way. It was like pulling teeth. He crawled over to Bill and hugged his leg and whispered very softly “sorry”. I did not want to get him upset all over again, but that was not acceptable. I kept encouraging him to give him a “real hug” and finally Bill was able to get pick him up and hug him and kiss his little head and tell him that he loved him. You could tell Jackson was just allowing him to do this just to get it over with. It was a half-hearted apology but it would have to do because Bill and I were both over the whole situation and just wanted him to get some sleep. He was obviously tired and that was making him a Mr. grumpy-pants.

The next morning he was better and I talked with him again about how he hurt his Daddy’s feelings. My goal was to help him understand how he was making his daddy feel hoping to teach him to empathize with him. He eventually got back to normal and even randomly said “you’re the best daddy every!” which I could tell made Bill quite happy. He loves being a daddy and is a very good one. Any good parent wants to hear that they’re doing a good job from their kids, so when they throw fits like this and say mean things, it can really hurt their feelings.

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The boys have a very positive role model of a good man in their father.

I recently read this great article on “Why It’s Imperative to Teach Empathy to Boys”. Girls are taught empathy but boys typically aren’t. I have worked in the field of advocacy for victims of sexual and relationship violence as well as prevention education around those issues for almost 10 year. I see what boys’ lack of empathy for others can do, whether they are the perpetrator of violence against someone or a silent bystander unwilling to do anything to help the victim. Now, Jackson is a long time from college, but I want to teach him this skill early so he will naturally turn to empathy when reacting to various situations.

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We’ve talked about a few bullying scenarios he’s seen in Preschool and how that made the person being bullied feel. One of those instances was when a bus monitor called him out for being a boy with painted nails, so he knew a little bit about how it feels. You may have heard people say that babies aren’t born knowing how to hate and I see that to be true. However, it doesn’t take long for them to learn jealousy which I see as a source of a lot of tension among kids (and adults) and that can lead them to bully or be mean to others.

When Myles copies something that Jackson does, or plays with one of his toys, Jackson will pitch a fit or try to snatch the toy away. His latest response to why he doesn’t want Myles to play with his toys or follow him around is because he “doesn’t like babies”. And yet, he will lead Myles around the house in whatever made up game he wants them to play together not long after one of his fits. It can be frustrating that he doesn’t understand when he’s being contradictory, but I have to keep telling myself he hasn’t learned that skill yet.

PARENTING IS HARD! It is a job that requires you to be on your game at all times. If you are tired too often and as a result always react negatively to a situation, that is going to affect how your kids behave toward others.  You can’t just wave a magic wand and make your kids turn out to be perfect angels who have empathy for others and a strong sense of self-confidence and humility at the same time. Actions speak louder than words. When I want my kids to stop hitting each other or one of us (something Myles does as part of his terrible twos) I usually say “gentle” but if I’m yelling it at them it kind of defeats the purpose. See what I mean? I may not get it 100% right all of the time, but I’m hoping that I am resilient enough to teach them how to be good people at least 95% of the time.

I have seen how my efforts to teach Jackson empathy have worked. He will identify how something someone did probably made someone feel and I applaud him when he does that. Now if I can just get him to identify when his actions affect others, we’ll be good to go.

(This post originally appeared on http://www.GrrrlWithBoys.blogspot.com on 7/7/14.)

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