Empathy training begins at home. So does compassion training, truth-telling, good listening skills, and bullying prevention. And you thought helping with 7th grade math was going to be the hard part!
We want our kids to learn to be good people and most of us know that doesn’t happen solely by osmosis. So we teach them and we do such a good job that by the time they are five, they say “please,” “thank you,” and “I’m sorry” on command. Underneath the programmed responses is the beginning of kids’ awareness of the right way right to treat other people vs. the wrong way. But because they are young humans they mess up. Often. They lash out and hurt the feelings and body parts of other children. And we hear about it. Yet no matter how many after-the-fact conversations that begin with “How would you feel if he did that to you?” they will continue to go out of their way to hurt other kids. So what’s up with that? Are your kids “bad”? No. Even though they do bad things, they aren’t bad kids. And don’t you dare think they are or, god forbid, tell them that!
Since they’re not bad, why do they keep doing this hurtful stuff? Simply because they haven’t yet learned to manage their destructive emotions (anger, jealousy, resentment, frustration and poor-me-ism, to name a few peace-busters guaranteed to bring out the worst in our species.) Consequently, kids of all ages maim first first and ask forgiveness afterwards. Another reason they do stuff they know isn’t OK is because they’ve constructed a set of handy justifications that makes it OK.
Because most kids get their peer relationship training with their siblings, cousins, and close family friends, let’s imagine a typical sister-brother conflict in your home. Suppose your 7 year old daughter purposely wrecks the Lego castle your 5 year old son’s been building all afternoon. He’s crying and screaming and you yell at her, “Why did you do that?!” Turn down the volume for a sec and listen to her justifications:
1. I didn’t do anything.
2. I thought he wanted my help.
3. I thought he was finished.
4. It was already broken.
5. He always hogs the ____.
6. He always blames me for everything.
7. He’s annoying.
8. His stuff was in my way.
9. He was doing it wrong.
10. You always take his side.
What can you say to any of this? Your own destructive emotions have launched surface to air missiles from your eyeballs and your tone of voice is ugly and scary. But who can blame you? This is already the third … no fourth… fight between these two and it’s only Saturday afternoon of this loong “Happy Holiday Weekend.” So if you’re not in your “Calm Mommy” place hey, we get it. But if you were sane and centered enough to actually hear and acknowledge every one of your daughter’s justifications (which doesn’t mean you’ve got to agree with any of them) she could rattle them off and pile them neatly to one side and maybe, just maybe, she’d then feel safe enough to lift the lid on her anger, tentatively reveal the soft underbelly of her heart, and tell you the real reason she’s determined to destroy her brother’s happiness.
Sniff… whimper… “I think you love him more than me.”
What do you say now, Mom?