Empathy - Let's Make Sure Our Kids Understand What That Means

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So you're probably wondering why I chose to highlight a picture of Dan Rather in a blog posting about kids and empathy. A few weeks ago, an article in The National about Dan Rather titled Working Class Hero caught my eye. In his essay, Dan Rather shares his views on how a lack of empathy is contributing to the divisiveness in this country. Rather was a child of the Depression. He learned the meaning of empathy through witnessing and experiencing hardship: seeing others around him lose jobs, lose homes, be hungry. It was also during those times where he witnessed acts of kindness. He saw what it meant to put oneself in the shoes of others with humility, and without judgment. Those with so little, helped those with even less. Empathy played a key role in bringing communities together during a time of great hardship, and that made America a stronger, more united nation. 

A few days later, as I was taking care of daily house chores, I took a moment to watch Addie and Taylor playing one of their favorite pastimes, family. I was intrigued by their roles, and asked them what they were pretending. Here's the scenario they explained to me:

  • Dad passed away from lung cancer at the age of 55.
  • Mom (played by Addie) is now a single mom of 4 kids. She has a high schooler, middle schooler, 3rd grader and baby. 
  • The oldest, the high school boy (played by Taylor), helps babysit his 3 younger siblings. He also happens to have a girlfriend named Katie Hunter. (I found the detail of him having a girlfriend, and having a first and last name for her adorable). 

They told me what they were playing very matter-of-factly. I, on the other hand, had a knee jerk reaction, which thankfully I managed to keep to myself.  That's so sad! Why are they pretending the dad died?! It's such a depressing situation! They should pretend something normal, something happy... But as I stood there by the stairs, watching them play, it dawned upon me that my kids were putting themselves in the shoes of others, and I remembered Dan Rather's article. In essence, they were practicing empathy. These days, it seems that many in positions of power and wealth, especially in the current government, could use a lesson or two on empathy.  Blaming problems on others, especially those that are victims of discrimination, or those living in poverty only divides us more. As a parent, and as a concerned American, I encourage you to read Dan Rather's essay. Maybe more empathy is what this country needs right now. And as parents, we need to do our part by demonstrating empathy, and making sure our kids understand what that means. 



My Kid Loves Herself, and Here's Why

I am 6 years old. I am in first grade. I am smart. I eat well. I love myself.

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When I read those words my daughter had written one evening in her journal, I couldn’t be happier. To know that your daughter has self-love, and a strong sense of confidence is invaluable. At first when I read those words, I chalked it up to how she's wired.  We got lucky, very lucky. Our daughter is just a naturally confident girl, and doesn’t suffer from low self-esteem issues that plague way too many girls in this country.

It’s funny how things unfold though – you’ll see what I mean shortly.

The night before, it was Daddy’s turn to stay with Addie before tucking her in and saying good-night (Frank and I alternate each night). While Daddy was sitting next to Addie in bed, Addie was lamenting about her age, something she often does, as she’s one of the youngest ones amongst her friends. "Being young" might not seem like that big of a deal, but in her mind, it's comparable to being "the smallest one" or "the one who's always picked last for sport teams." She has an August birthday. And in a school system where the cutoff for the year is the end of September, she’s usually one of the youngest in her class. So all her friends are starting to turn 7, and she still has to wait a bit. Since she was feeling down about herself, Daddy gave her a pep talk... which I'll elaborate on in a bit. 

Rewind a few days back, I was at the Library of Congress attending the 2016 inauguration of the National Ambassador for Young Children's Literature, Gene Yang. For those in the DC area, this is a bi-annual free event open to the public that I highly recommend, as it was such a privilege to hear both Gene Yang (an energetic, funny and inspirational force), and the outgoing ambassador, Kate DiCamillo (her words are a gift to us all), speak. After the event, I stopped by the gift store, and bought Addie a Writing Journal. What I liked about it, was that on every page, it had a suggestion at the top on what to write about, which I think is very helpful for young writers. 

So now back to that evening where Daddy gave Addie the pep talk, it just so happened she couldn't fall asleep that night and came downstairs looking for me. I happened to remember then that I hadn't given her the Writing Journal yet, so I let her know that I had something special for her. I gave her the journal. She immediately asked if she could write in it that evening. My first instinct was to say no, because it was late, and a school night, but I saw how excited she was about the journal, and decided not to take away from that moment - and I told her that she could write in it for a few minutes before going to bed. 

The next evening, when I came into her room to close her curtains, she told me she loved the journal so much, and she thanked me for it. The topic on the first page was, "Write about yourself." I asked her if I could read what she wrote, and this is what I saw, "I am 6 years old. I am in first grade. I am smart. I eat well. I love myself."

I told her I loved that she had written in her journal, and that I loved what she wrote. I quickly went to find Frank and tell him how lucky we were to have a little girl with such confidence.

Turns out, I was a little bit wrong in attributing Addie's strong sense of herself all to her personality. Frank shared with me that during his pep talk with Addie the night before, he reassured her, and reminded her of the goodness she brings to the table. Even though she was only 6, she was definitely just as tall as all the 7 year olds, if not taller (she's always been on the taller side for her age). And even more importantly, he reminded Addie that she's got a lot to love about herself. She's smart. She can do everything her 7 year old classmates can do, if not more. She eats amazingly well, has an impressively sophisticated palate and is always willing to try new foods. She's very kind and thoughtful. That night, Daddy reminded Addie that she has a lot to feel good about. And those words, not only cheered Addie up in the moment, but permanently added to Addie's evolving sense of herself in a beautiful, positive way.

Remind, your daughter/son, always, of all the reasons they have to love themselves. It does make a difference.

I'm a "good" parent

The other day, my daughter came home, and shared with me what she had learned about buckets, and how to fill them. Buckets not in a literal sense, but as a metaphor for the basic human need to be on the receiving end of positive gestures. Her teacher/counselor, had taught her class that everyone has a bucket. To fill someone's bucket is to offer a kind gesture of some sort, such as complimenting a person, thanking them, or doing something nice for someone. My daughter had chosen to fill my bucket. Considering she was told she could fill anyone's bucket (including her classmates or teacher), I was touched that she chose to fill my bucket. Here's the note that she wrote me: 

Dear Mommy, You are a good mommy. You are cool. I Love you. From: Addie

Dear Mommy, You are a good mommy. You are cool. I Love you. From: Addie

Now you would think that getting a note like that from your child would be "good" enough. But I couldn't help honing in on the fact that she wrote "good" mommy. Not "great" mommy. Why did I choose to dwell on that word? Of course on the outside I made sure she knew how much I appreciated having my bucket filled (I thanked her, I hugged her, and told her how lucky I was to be her mommy), but on the inside, there was some turmoil going on. Am I not great? Don't I strive to be a great mommy? I didn't leave my career to become a stay at home mom to become a "good" mommy... 

So as my brain went down this dark, critical, pretentious path, I kept asking myself, what my definition of being a "great" mom was, and why had the phrase "good" mom given me such a knee-jerk reaction. Then, thankfully the rational side of me kicked in, and I decided to approach this from a thought exercise lens and think about "good" vs "great" from Addie's perspective. If I put myself in my daughter's shoes, what would I think of Mommy? Let's see. 

My mommy gives me hugs in the morning when I wake up. My mommy is always telling me to hurry up and get ready so that we won't be late. I hate it when she brushes my hair and says it won't hurt but it hurts A LOT when she's brushing out the knots. She nags me about wearing my mittens and not zipping up my coat. She gets annoyed when I forget to put my library books in my backpack. She gets cranky if we're running late and she has to drive a little faster so that we make it to school on time. I love that she's always there to pick me up from the school bus. She makes me do my homework first before playing with friends. Just this past week, she decided I can only play with friends Monday and Friday afternoons during the school week. Why can't I play with them everyday? She's always telling me to practice my piano, or read, or practice Chinese, or do math problems. I hate it when she yells at me for crying. She says crying doesn't get me anything. But sometimes I'm just tired and frustrated, so I cry. I love it when she stays with me at night. I feel like I can tell her anything. I'm glad she doesn't work anymore so I get to see her more. I love my mommy very much.

If that's what she's thinking, then I'll take "good" any day, because there are definitely moments throughout each day that I'm not quite reaching the bar of being a "good" mom. And then there's the simple fact that my job isn't to be a "great" mom all the time, that'd be like giving her all the candy she wants at the candy store. So, it turns out I feel good about being a "good" mom. It doesn't hurt that Addie gave me credit for being a "cool" mom, too. 



Carpool buddies and car games

I don't carpool much. Part of the reason is that I drive a small car that just seats two in the back. I believe I'm the only stay at home mom in the neighborhood that does not haul the kiddos around in a minivan (to their dismay - their dream is a simple one: for mommy to get a minivan). My husband though drives a Honda Ridgeline truck - which can fit 3 across in the backseat. So on occasion, I swap cars with him so that I can carpool. Today, I learned a lot while carpooling. The topic was car games. It's always satisfying to learn something new, and the added bonus was that for the entire drive, my carpool buddies made my heart smile. 

We picked up Addie's friend Jay. He hopped in the car, and we were off to drop my daughter and him off at summer camp. Addie and Jay started chatting when Addie mentioned, "Oh no, I think I missed the porter potty." Then shortly thereafter, I hear Taylor yell out, "Porter Potty!" I realized in that moment Jay was probably trying to figure out what my kids' fascination with porter potties was all about, so I gave him some background context.

"Earlier in the year when I was potty training Taylor, he couldn't hold his pee for very long, so I started finding myself in lots of porter potties. Soon, every time the kids saw a porter potty, they'd yell out, 'Porter potty!' So we turned it into a car game. If you're the first person to spot a porter potty and call it out, you get a point. Each porter potty equals one point. The person who gets the most points by the time we get to our destination wins."

In response, Jay told us about the car game he plays. "It's called the alphabet game. You have to find words that start with each letter in the alphabet, and you have to go in order. So first you find a word that starts with A. Then B. Do you know, one time we made it through the whole alphabet all the way to Z???!!!"

"Wow," I responded, thinking about the difference in the types of car games we play. 

"Jay! Jay! Excuse me! Jay! Do you play the red car game?" That was my 3 year old trying to get Jay's attention. It probably sounded more like this, "Jay! Jay! Coos me! Jay! Do you pway the wed caw game?"

Here was Jay's response. "What did Taylor say?" I noticed every time Taylor spoke to Jay, I had to translate. Jay doesn't have any younger siblings, and I can tell he isn't used to the speech patterns of a 3 year old. So I explained that red car game is just like our porter potty game, except you get a point every time you see a red car.

"No we don't play that game. But we play the addition game. So you pick a number, let's say 5. And then you have to find two numbers that add up to 5. You can look at license plates, signs, anything that has numbers on it."

"Wow." That's me, of course, once again thinking about the lack of educational qualities of our games.

"And we also play the number game in the car. You have to find numbers in order, just like with the alphabet game. For bigger numbers, like 22,  you can find each number separately like 2 and 2 to make 22. But if you find 2 and 2 next to each other, you get to skip the next number, 23, and move onto finding 24. Oh, and you can't use the numbers you see in the car. That would make it too easy."

"Porto potty!!!" Taylor yells out. 

Now I'm well versed on car games. All different kinds. Makes me look forward to hanging out with my carpool buddies. 

"Mommy's going to jail" threat

Yesterday, on the drive back from ballet class, my daughter started yelling, "Mommy - Taylor's taking his arms out of his seatbelt!" And sure enough, at a stop sign, I whipped my head back to see his chest and arms free from any restraint. 

So I did what any good mom does who fiercely cares about the safety of her child. I used fear to threaten my child back into appropriate behavior. "Taylor! Get your arms back under your seatbelt! If a cop pulls me over now, and sees yours arms out, he's sending me to jail!" 

Then it got quiet. Really quiet. I wasn't sure if my threat had worked, so I asked my daughter if his arms were back in - and she confirmed that indeed they were. So just as I was about to give myself a parenting pat on the back for figuring out how to ensure my son never goofs around with his seatbelt again, I hear whimpering noises. Sniffle, sniffle. 

"Mommy," Taylor whispers, "I don't want you to go to jail. I would really, really, really miss you."

He really did say really 3 times. And then he started bawling - as if he wasn't going to see me for a very very long time. His sadness permeated the car. My heart skipped a beat, while my stomach churned. 

I spent the rest of the drive reassuring him that Mommy's not going to jail. I had no idea that my just recently turned 3 year old would take my threat so seriously - and knew what going to jail meant. I asked him, "Do you even know what jail is?" And he nodded yes.

Did I chuckle when I told this story to my husband? Yes. Did I feel bad that he was bawling in the car as his toddler brain imagined what life would be like without mommy? Yes, very much so. Was I secretly happy that he'd really really really miss me. Yes. Do I think that my threat worked? Yes. Would I do it again? Probably not. Parenting's complicated.