Empathy Is Not Indulgence

Empathy helps children bounce back

EmpathyIn previous posts, I have emphasized the importance of parents’ responsiveness to their children’s emotions – children’s positive emotions of interest and pride as well as their painful feelings of sadness, anger, and shame.

In recent years, some parent advisors have argued that we now pay too much attention to our children’s feelings. The critics believe that we have gone too far – that we have become too concerned with children’s feelings and not concerned enough with their competence and moral behavior. In this view, we have tried so hard to make our children happy that we’ve made them unhappy. We are so concerned that they not feel any disappointment (“Will he be too upset?”) that we no longer provide them with the experience of mastering challenges – experiences of mastery that lead to the strengthening of character and real, earned, self-esteem. We offer them too many choices, fail to make appropriate demands, and allow them too often to say no.

In these ways, the critics believe that contemporary parenting practices have fostered a culture of indulgence that is harmful to our society – and to our children.

This critique may have some merit. It is not difficult, in our everyday lives, to find appalling examples of parental indulgence. In my clinical experience, however, the most frequent cause of children’s unhappiness is not indulgence and certainly not an exaggerated concern with their feelings. Far more often, we pay too little attention to our children’s feelings – their worries, their disappointments, and their frustrations. Yes, we may often be indulgent, but more often we are “at them” – nagging and yelling, telling them what they should be doing and what they are doing wrong,


And, in these discussions, empathy and understanding, which are still the essence of good parenting, have gotten a bad name – and a bum rap.

Empathy is not indulgence. It is not permissive and it is not laissez-faire. Listening with empathy helps children bounce back. The solution of every emotional or behavioral problem of childhood should begin (but does not end) with our willingness to make a genuine effort to hear our child’s concerns and to understand her point of view.

(For a recent report on the importance of empathy doctor – patient relationships, see Pauline Chen, MD, “Can Doctors Learn Empathy?NY Times, June 21, 2012)

When you listen empathically to your children, children experience reduced stress – and then, increased cognitive and emotional flexibility. In your child’s behavior, you will see less argument, less defiance, and less withdrawal.

Moments of empathic understanding then open a pathway toward emotional maturity. Your child becomes, in small increments, more open to compromise and problem solving. In this way, our empathy helps bring about a decisive change in children’s attitudes and behavior, a fulcrum shift in their emotional development – a movement away from urgent and insistent demands and toward tolerance for disappointments and frustrations, and acceptance of personal responsibility.

When we are able to convey empathic understanding to our children, when children feel that their concerns – and their grievances – have been heard, they will make fewer, not more demands. They will be better behaved and more caring toward others. And we will have an easier time when it is time to say no.

The Limits of Empathy

But is empathy always possible? And is it enough? Is an empathic response always the right response? If empathy is not indulgence, how can we tell the difference? How do we know when our sympathy for a child’s feelings really has gone too far?

The answer, I believe, is this: We always insist, no matter what our child’s feelings – no matter how aggrieved or how hurt, no matter how unfair he feels we have been, or how badly he has been provoked – on limits to physical and verbal aggression. We teach the importance not only of his feelings but also of the feelings of others, and insist on the rights of others. We also put into practice the principle of earning. Our love and concern are unconditional, but privileges must be earned.

Will empathic parents be more likely to indulge their children – to give in more often than they should to their child’s requests or demands? Perhaps. It is true, when you make a sincere effort to understand your child’s (or your spouse’s or colleague’s) point of view, you will be more likely to compromise, to find some way to accommodate her desires, even to give in (a little). This is because it is in the nature of empathy to be influenced by the other person, to be less sure, for example, that we are right. Which is why listening with empathy is also essential to successful marriages.

There will always be some tension between our empathic goals (our desire to comfort our children, to protect them from disappointment, to help them feel better now) and our socializing goals (our desire, for example, to teach them more mature ways of managing distress, to work harder, to learn the skills they will need to do well in life). There will always be some tension between letting them have fun (and giving in a little more than we should) and insisting on rules and limits. Most of us, as parents, struggle to find the right balance between these competing concerns.

The solution to this problem is therefore simple in theory, if often difficult in everyday life. Feelings matter. Behavior also matters. Our children need to know that their feelings are important – but so are the needs and feelings of others. We need to encourage their self-expression and also teach them self-restraint.

In our concern with standards and discipline, however, we should not lose sight of a simple truth: Our children will be more willing to listen to us when we have first listened to them.

(Originally published on PsychologyToday.com)

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