"Having a heart for the needs and feelings of others" is one of the definitions of empathy we came up with in a recent parenting workshop. Empathy is not feeling sorry for someone...it is being WITH someone, getting in the zone with them as they share their heart.
Sometimes you have no clue what to say. Just being there, listening and caring can make a difference to someone going through a hard time.
You don't start with , "I know just how you feel". Because you don't. Even if you have gone through a similar experience, your feelings are as unique as your fingerprints. By allowing the other person to share their heart in a relationship of trust, you give the gift of compassion and connection.
Empathy is a key ingredient to responsive parenting. You might not agree that crying like a banshee because it is time to leave the McDonald's playground is a life shattering event, but at the moment it does seem like the end of the world for a toddler. You know there will be opportunities to play there again, but your child cannot see the future.
Empathy gets you to the child's level and you can comfort them by saying, "I know it is so hard to leave when you are having fun. We have had a really fun time here and I wish we could stay here all night and bring our pajamas and camp out. Wouldn't it be silly to wake up in the morning and brush our teeth at McDonalds?
We will come back again to play. For now, how about we say "bye bye" to the slide and tell her we will be back soon?"
Yes, I know this takes longer than saying, "you'd better come RIGHT NOW or we are NEVER coming back!!!". I remember one time my then 3 year old son would not come out of the hamburger structure at the McDonald's on Roosevelt. Back in the day, when the "Hamburglar" was part of Ronald's posse, there was a hamburger structure, all metal with sort of a cage on the top. (It would probably be considered a death trap by today's safety standards) There was no shade structure and that steel hamburger was hot to the touch.
It was past time to leave the hot playground. Demanding that my son come out was not getting me anywhere. The way the hamburger was designed, I could not reach inside and pull him out. I was getting impatient. Then it occurred to me...It was up to him to decide to climb out.
So I tried plan B or plan C or plan D or whatever letter I was on for getting that boy out of that hamburger. I said, "I know this is the funnest playground ever. I wish we had this playground at home. If I could fit in that hamburger and hide from the "Hamburglar", I would be right in there with you. You are such a good climber. Can you show me how you climb in and out before we go home?"
Somehow that worked. He demonstrated his climbing skills for me by climbing out. I resisted the temptation to scoop him up and haul him to the car after he was out, because I knew that would only start a power struggle on our next visit if I tricked him. Then I said, "show me how you get back in." I congratulated him on being a #1 Hamburger climber. I gave him a high five and a big smile. Then he surprised me with, "ok, mommy, I am ready to go now."
After I connected with his feelings of fun, he chose to cooperate. Empathy is about connecting. When we feel valued and understood, there is less conflict and more connection. I know empathy will not solve every playground battle or every disagreement, but it sure helps to build relationships of trust. It says "I care about your feelings and you are important to me." Next time you are frustrated and want to control someone's behavior, whether they are a child or an adult- try plan "E" for Empathy instead!