Archive for January, 2013

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Empathy in 3 steps (or less)

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype

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A dear friend of mine stopped by last night for dinner, his vibrant two year old daughter in tow. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a toddler in the house, and I cannot get enough of this little one’s stubbornness and enthusiasm and spontaneous, full-body hugs. There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when a child bounds across a room and throws herself into your arms. Perfection.

As his little one bounced around the living room, he and I discussed a question he had recently posed on his Facebook page: How can you teach empathy to your kids?

Empathy seems to be the new buzz word these days, and for good reason. Recent studies show a dramatic decrease in young people who identify themselves as empathic, and the rash of bully-related suicides in the last several years has many parents wringing their hands with worry. None of us want our child to be the target of another’s cruelty, and none of us want our child to become the one who is cruel. But do we really have control over how much our children care about, and with, others? Maia Szalavitz, co-author of Born For Love, thinks so.

We all have the natural capacity (in the absence of some brain disorders) for empathy,” Szalavitz says. “However, like language, empathy requires particular experiences to promote learning.”

The trick? Practice. Similar to language, children come predisposed for the capacity to empathize with other humans. And just like language, empathy can be quickly learned and strengthened when it is modeled and practiced at home with the child’s very first teachers- her parents.

Here are the ways I practice empathy at home with my children.

1. Feel out loud
One of the most important skills I can give my children is the vocabulary to discuss their own, and others’, feelings and experiences. I do this by giving voice to my own emotions on a regular basis. “I was so sad when I found out my friend is moving to another city.” “I’m having trouble figuring something out for work and I feel really frustrated.” “I missed you while you were at Dad’s. I am so happy to see you again.”

These sentences may seem bland- and out of context, even a little contrived- but when our day-to-day conversation is peppered with statements like these my children learn how to understand the feelings that bubble up during the day. And they learn that our home is a safe and welcoming environment for talking about how we feel.

2. Never judge an emotion
We make it a rule in our house never to judge or punish an emotion. If my daughter tells me she’s feeling upset, she gets to have that. It’s hers, and I respect that feeling. What matters to me is how she treats others when she feels that way. When they were little I would say things like, “You feel angry, and that’s OK. It’s not OK to hit your sister.”

3. Practice perspective-taking
Being able to put oneself in another person’s shoes is the most important building block for empathy. Sympathy is feeling for another person. Empathy is feeling with. Understanding what someone is experiencing helps turn sympathy into empathy.

We practice this in a number of ways. The most common is through discussion (”What do you think that was like for her?”), but it can also be a game (”Imagine you are the bus driver and all of the kids on the bus are yelling and bouncing in their seats. How would you feel? What would you do?”). They are used to these questions by now, and are ready to jump right in with an answer. Every time they think about what another person is experiencing, their ability to empathize becomes stronger.

The most important thing to remember is that even if you do nothing more than demonstrate your own empathy, your children will benefit. As Roots of Empathy founder Mary Gordon says, “Empathy can’t be taught, but it can be caught.”

Skinny is a four-letter word

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype

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“Mom, how do you spell ’skinnier?’” she asks me, holding a notebook close to her chest, pencil poised and ready. My heart falls into my gut and lodges itself somewhere underneath my kidneys. I fight the urge to double over in pain. These conversations threaten to break me in half.

In the most casual tone I can muster, I quickly rattle off the letters and then say, “Why do you ask?”

“I just wanted to know!” she says and writes something down on her paper.

“What are you writing, honey?” I ask.

“Just something!” she says and then she is gone, out of the kitchen and up into her room. I hear the door at the bottom of the stairs bang shut behind her.

Fear washes over me and I feel suddenly crazy and helpless. Unlike the inspiring mother who danced naked with her seven-year old, I am not overqualified when it comes to talking about female body image with my daughters. I am still working diligently to love my own imperfect mess of hair and skin and bones. I still wince imperceptibly when I am told that I am beautiful, a tiny alarm bell going off somewhere in the back of my mind that reminds me to quickly, quickly find out what this person wants from me.

I do not want this for my daughters.

Absolutely nothing frightens me more than the thought of my girls, my smart, compassionate, gorgeous, healthy girls, believing that their bodies are anything less than spectacular. Which makes me wonder: Can a mother with demons of her own raise strong, confident daughters? The answer, of course, is yes, if I can be careful not to let the fear take over. If the girls come to me and say, “Mom, I wish I was skinnier,” I must try not to not to bulldoze the moment with well-meaning platitudes (”WHAT DO YOU MEAN, YOU ARE PERFECT EXACTLY THE WAY YOU ARE, EVERYTHING IS OKAY.”)

Instead, I will say: ”Tell me more about that.”

And then, when I’ve listened to what they have to say, and given them a safe space to air their worries, thoughts and fears, I can remind them, gently, that they are smart, compassionate, gorgeous and healthy. That their value doesn’t come from looking like a toothpick, it comes from their innate, indestructible goodness. That there will be times when they don’t believe this about themselves, and that’s ok. Because my job is to believe it all the time, no matter what. And I will always be there to remind them.

I spend a few moments gathering my thoughts, and then follow my daughter upstairs. There, abandoned on the top step, is her notebook. Before I can stop myself I flip the cover open and skim the page she has filled with notes about her day.

Mom is making dinner. My homework is hard. I think the answer is E but Mom says no. I am very tired. Olive is getting skinnier.

I am weak with relief- she has written about our old cat, whose new wet food diet is agreeing with her.

I walk over to her bed and sit down beside her. She’s playing with her stuffed animals, and I pick up her favorite little tiger and kiss the top of its fuzzy head, and then I kiss her. The time will come when I will sit with her and listen to her worries and thoughts and fears about her body, but I’m glad it isn’t tonight. Even so, I say to her, “You know what I think?”

“What?” she says.

“I think you are smart and compassionate and gorgeous and healthy.”

“Okay,” she says. “I’m hungry.”

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