Empathy and Conversations With Our Children – Casa di Mir Montessori

Empathy and Conversations With Our Children

Mother and daughter in natureThis blog post was prompted by many observations I have made and comments parents have shared with me about conversations they have with their children. How do we encourage the conversations we wish to have? How do we receive what our child shares with us? How do you handle the conversations in which your child shares something that was painful during the day?

It is important to point out that the parent’s style of connection through conversation may not be the same as the child’s. The child may want physical closeness, sharing a snack, a story, or music. The child may feel the questions puts him/her on the spot to remember details not recalled easily, thus threatening the connection or making the child feel obligated to produce some answer, true or not. It is good to consider other ways that we can connect with our children when we spend time with them. The conversation that follows this initial connection flows much more easily.

Greetings are very important at pick-up time. They allow for transition. Let your child settle into the car with words of joy in seeing him/her. Stay quiet for a time, see what gets volunteered. You would do well to put away the cell phone, turn off the radio, and have no access to any screen devices during this reconnecting time.

As parents, we want to hear all about our child’s day.  We look forward to connecting with him/her. What did s/he do in school? What did s/he enjoy? How did the social interactions go? Did s/he eat her/his lunch? One of the great challenges to actually having these conversations is the way children store their experiences and retrieve their memories. Our youngest children are so in the moment and have not yet mastered a sense of time that remembering even the morning activities can be very difficult. Our older children may be a little more guarded about what they want to share. Offer something positive and appropriate from your day and see what response you get. Knowing your child and his/her interests might be a guide into further questions. Vary these questions each day so a routine pattern of question/response doesn’t develop. Avoid yes/no questions. Try: “What did your teacher do today that caught your attention?”  “What activity was new on the shelf?” “Who did you play with today?” “Who did you eat with today?” Avoid questions like, “How many jobs did you do today?” That type of question usually connects to a child’s sense of should and probably won’t yield much more than a number. Instead try, “What job did you do today that you were especially proud or particularly happy with?” Wait at least 10 seconds for an answer. This is critical.  Research shows that we tend to stop the person’s answer with more of our own talking. Give most of your conversation time to nurturing the positives. Let your child know you are interested in him/her.

Sometimes children share about a situation that was hard or painful for him/her. The best response would be to listen, gently guide your child to understanding their role in the situation and toward problem-solving. If you think it necessary, prompt your child to bring the concern to his/her teacher. Empower your children to self-advocate as much as possible. There are, of course, times when you need to step in to help your child. Even then, give him/her as much support as you can to speak for him/herself.

I find a section of the book, “Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children” by Michael Thompson and Catherine O’Neill Grace a great resource for putting some things into perspective. Thompson and Grace explore one scenario I have seen happen frequently.  Speaking directly to parents they say, “When children share an experience of something painful in their interactions, we empathetically experience it with them.” That empathy is very important. We feel for them, and sometimes more than they do… sometimes too much. “There are four reasons we feel the pain more. First, children get over it sooner. They bounce back faster from insults and injuries, the same way they heal faster from a cut hand or a broken leg. Second, they are highly motivated to work things out and reconcile with their friends and their peer groups. Third, they deliberately hand over their pain to us so we can carry it for a while.  They know we’ll take it on. Fourth, and most significantly, we suffer from excesses of empathy because we carry around all our own old memories of how we were treated as children and how we felt about it.”

The child’s standard of justice is “forgive and forget.”  We hang onto our child’s hurts much longer than they do and can easily and unintentionally undermine the friendship between our child and the other child by imposing our adult anger and judgment. Your child has most likely moved on and can’t wait to play with her friend again, while you still harbor your upset for your child. Larry Cohen calls this an emotional game of Hot Potato. Our child hands off their upset with a friend and we are the last ones left holding the hot potato.

With this sort of distorted “empathy,” you might mistakenly start the conversation about school the next afternoon by checking in to see if the issue between your child and the other one continued. You might unwittingly show your concern or disdain in the tone of your voice. Your child might realize that you are very wrapped up in this topic and indulge in a little “spin” on things to keep your attention.  (Children are very astute in this regard.) The spin often avoids looking at the part your child played in the problem in the first place AND will usually take a “victim” tone.  Having you as an advocate can be very desirable. Making an enemy of the other child might be a small price to pay. Your child might confirm exactly what you expected to hear. This type of conversation is known as “interviewing for pain.” It can take on a life of its own and can be a consuming pitfall.  Much of the time the child will “feed” this conversation and will likely spin the information to keep you captivated. This is where objectivity is lost, and the situation generates unhealthy thinking, negating real problem-solving for your child. Be on the alert for this kind of cycle.

As parents, we want to learn what our child is doing and thinking while away from us.  The time together at the end of the day is an important time for reconnection. A quick internet search will yield many helpful websites with suggestions for positive and fun conversation starters. If problems come up, encourage your child to bring their concerns to the teacher, and if necessary, send an email to prompt the conversation and avoid speaking for your child.  Let your child know that you know he/she is capable of working things out.

Here’s to wonderful conversations with your child!

Wanda Whitehead
Director of Education
Casa di Mir Montessori

Comments are closed.