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


“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.”

Farewell, my dears

Categories: Best Practices, Fighting the Stereotype


I’ve been a lucky lady to write here at Work It, Mom for the past few years. I’ve loved swapping stories with you and hearing from you in the comments as well as in emails. Thank you for being such wonderful readers and companions in the tricky-to-navigate waters of single parenthood.

I’ll keep this short and sweet: I’m moving on from Single Mom at Work to tackle some Life Beasties that sorely need my attention, like, stat.

I’ll sure miss you. But I believe our wonderful editors here at Work It, Mom are concocting new plans for this space, so do stay tuned.

I’ll still be over at the new bot- and bug-free incarnation (yay! yay! yay!) of my longtime blog, Breed ‘Em and Weep, and I’d love to see you over there. So don’t be a stranger. Pop on by, and I’ll whip up some hot cocoa and plug in the faux woodstove.

Have a gloriously peaceful holiday season, and a divine 2013. Thank you for all of the kindness, laughter and well wishes. I’m so very grateful for you.


The politics of this single mama

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype


Oh, the hell with it. Let’s talk politics, and why I don’t feel like talking politics anymore.

I watched the Presidential debate for all of three and a half minutes. That’s all I needed to see. Mitt was going hard, and Obama was doing his low-key thing—death in a debate.

Got it. Click.

Of course I’ll vote. But it’s increasingly hard to care.

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Coffee in the car on a rainy morning

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype


I drop the girls at school. I pop through the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru for a small hot coffee (cream and two Splenda) and a ham and cheese breakfast sandwich. The rain won’t quit. If anything, it’s coming down harder now. When I get home and park in front of my house, I can’t quite bring myself to get out of the car.

Inside: twelve impossible bills, medicine to take, paperwork wanting my official “remarks” on my longtime depression and anxiety, two dogs who don’t want to go out into the rain to pee or poo, a new program to learn, emails to write, columns to write, a neglected blog to attend to, a six-foot high mound of laundry, a broken toilet, a busted vacuum, dishes in the sink, piles of clothing and toys to transfer to the car for a trip to Goodwill, food that needs cooking, a refrigerator that needs cleaning, a phone number for fuel assistance and low-cost weatherization, a bottle of whiskey to ignore.
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Swimming across synapses

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype, Sleepless in the Board Room, Tentative Steps


I have a new part-time gig, doing some editing from home, for some lovely colleagues. It’s not full-time, but I am grateful for the work. The girls and I are always desperate for warm clothes and groceries and oil to heat the house as the weather grows chilly. Every fall, I wonder how we will squeak by, make it through another New England winter. Every dollar helps. Mucho.

But I am freaking out, certain I will somehow blow this good thing. I don’t feel lucky, as a rule. Grateful, yes, but rarely lucky anymore. I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the next handbasket to hell to come trucking by with my name on it in blinking neon.

Be good, brain, I keep saying to myself. BE GOOD. LEARN THINGS. YOU CAN STILL DO IT.

Can I? it replies, concerned. You may have me confused with another brain.

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What has been lost

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype


She is her mother’s daughter, this little one. She can’t let go of the past and its false promises, its promises of “if only, then everything would be better.”

She did not want to go to her father’s house last night. This is not the usual, not at all. We were stunned by her wailing, clutching the back of the sofa, begging to know why we can’t all just live in the same house, weeping that her parents being divorced means that nothing, ever, is going to be better.
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On letting her be

Categories: Best Practices, Fighting the Stereotype


Kiddo #2 is going through a rough time. Bedtime is bad. Real bad. Again.

She’s eight years old, starting third grade this week. She’ll be nine in November. But this summer was too much for her, I know it, I can see it.

I told her dad today that I thought we’d screwed up, that we should have listened better to her when she said she wasn’t ready for sleepaway camp. She’d rallied, not wanting to let anyone down, I think. But it took a toll on her. There’s just no pretending that it didn’t. It took all she had to keep it together for one week of camp, and her coping resources were maxed out. Her reserves are empty, and it may be some time before she can fill them again.
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School year resolutions?

Categories: Best Practices, Fighting the Stereotype


Another school year is here (or almost here, in our case, but not quite). As nice as it will be to have a schedule again to fill up all that scary blank space on the calendar, I’m daunted by the time and money challenges that lie ahead for 2012-13.

Sixth and third grades: more homework, more responsibilities, more sports equipment, and more clothing to replace what they’ve outgrown. New England autumns and winters don’t help, either—this is definitely the land of at least three seasons of clothes and footwear.

So I’m trying to come up with a better game plan for this single-mama household. Chaos reigns a little too often here, and I’d like that to change. That’s tricky, of course, in a home with two dogs, two cats, two kids and one adult, so I’m looking for some wisdom from you!

What’s working for your family—small, large or in-between?
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A Predominantly Factual Account Depicting Single Mommy and Her Preference for Special Summer Juice Instead of Summer Reading Lists

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype


I am sorting through bills and paperwork and growling like feral animal, as I do at least four times a day. I have found letters alluding to summer reading lists for my children, but I cannot find the actual summer reading lists.

NO LIKEY. I hate summer reading lists, and everything having to do with them. I growl more loudly.

Firstborn enters and plops down beside me, looking all smart and cultured and acutely, vehemently well-read, which only peeves me more. “You’re still not done?”

“What have you heard me say about summer reading lists? You’ve heard me say bad words about the summer reading lists, right? Like, every year. THEY PROVOKE ME TO SAY BAD WORDS IN FRONT OF MY CHILDREN. Teachers who issue summer reading homework? They should be reported to the Department of Social Services. For PROVOKING PARENTS TO SWEAR ON AN ANNUAL BASIS.”

“Uh-huh,” says Firstborn, who is amused, as ever, by my visible frustration and verbal use of ALL CAPS. She scratches my back with her fingernails to soothe me while she picks up a piece of crumpled paper. She scans it. “What’s this one?”

“Homework for parents,” I whine. “Why don’t they understand? This is summertime. Mommy is supposed to be lying by a very chlorinated pool, drinking her Special Summer-Edition Mommy Juice, wearing a polka-dot bikini and a stunt double, while you and your sister kick your legs out of treehouses and swing in tire swings and wander in swamps and poke at toads with sticks and sell lemonade in sexual-offender-free zones. But noooooo. What do I get in the mail? Adult homework, in which I am supposed to write about my goals for my ALREADY PERFECTLY PERFECT CHILDREN.”
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