Perhaps you never gave it much thought, but empathy is a huge part of being a person of integrity. The ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, to see and feel things from their perspective allows you to make better choices. When you can understand what it is like to be lied to, stolen from, made fun of… you are less likely to do those things to other people. That said empathy is not a trait that people are born with. Babies enter this world with just the capacity to be empathetic, but it is parents who must help them develop the actual trait.
The number one way that children learn empathy is when they are treated with empathy. When we become empathetic parents we are showing our children that we respect them, that we are willing to see things from their side, that we value their thoughts and accept them for who they are. Basically when we walk a mile in our children’s shoes we are modeling integrity, compassion, and of course empathy.
Being an empathetic parent is not always easy. Children by nature can push our buttons. But studies show that parents who are more empathetic tend to have better relationships with their children filled with honest open communication. They also tend to be less stressed! Yes you read correctly. Empathetic parents tend to be less stressed because their children are better able to manage their own difficult emotions, can soothe themselves and get angry less often.
It’s easy to be empathetic when your child is feeling hurt, sad or afraid… but what about all those other times… especially when they are being testing and rude? This is when being empathetic is even more important. The first thing we need to do is listen, listen, and um yeah… listen. Our job is to help them to feel understood. We must learn to not take their anger or frustration personally. We need to remain calm, flexible and willing to adjust our language, thoughts, and actions. This does not mean that we are condoning negative behavior; instead we are empathizing and then affirming our belief that they will do the right thing.
When we parent our children with empathy, it puts us and our children on the same side of any problem. When we show empathy, it sends the message to our children that they are safe to make mistakes and encourages them to take responsibility when they do. When we show empathy it helps our children to think of others, to be more accepting of difference, to appreciate honesty and most of all to have the self-confidence to do the right thing even when it’s not the most popular choice. In other words, empathetic parenting helps us to raise children of integrity!
Integrity is about being true to yourself, your values and your word. Yet it is easier to ignore the situation that my come up – even if it impacts our values. One step in standing up for our values and helping others is being able to understand the other persons point of view. The word for that is EMPATHY.
As adults we know that empathy is a key to our ability to have good social interactions with others. That may include siblings, parents, work or school mates or even someone that we have a fleeting interaction with on the street. How do we help to develop empathy in ourselves or our children?
Here are three questions you might ask yourself or discuss with your children that will help us to understand the other persons point of view.
- What are they feeling right now?
- How are they viewing the situation
- What is really important to them right now?
If you can look deeply into yourself to see if you can even begin to imagine the answers to those 3 questions you are on the road to understanding the other person’s point of view. You are developing EMPATHY. The question that is left is “What will you do with that information?” Will you ignore it? Will you use it to take compassionate action – in line with your values?
One of the hardest concepts to teach children about integrity is having them understand the idea of being authentic and staying true to ourselves. Sure we say the old famous lines all the time. You know the ones I’m talking about. “If so and so jumped off a cliff would you?” or “Those that matter don’t mind and those that mind don’t matter.” We say these things in an effort to teach our children to be independent thinkers, to do the right thing, to stand up for what they believe in, to help them feel good about themselves. But we sometimes forget that our children learn by what they see us doing, not from the words that come out of our mouths. If we want our children to be their own unique wonderful selves 100% of the time… then we need to do the same.
Are you being authentic and staying true to yourself? Sometimes we put on a mask, portray a different persona in order to fit in or be liked. It has somehow become an accepted practice in our culture. You might be one way with your family and totally different with your co-workers or boss. We may hide the way we feel about a certain subject in order to not be alienated, left out of a conversation, not part of the in-crowd. Yet we don’t understand when we see children doing the exact same thing at school or with their friends.
We frequently compare ourselves to others, and change the way we act, accordingly. We make assumptions based only on what we see. “She has no control over her child” we may think when we see a child melting down in the middle of the grocery store aisle without knowing the whole story. Comparing ourselves to another parent can make us feel worse or perhaps in the case of the lady with the child melting down … better; it just depends on the parent we choose to compare ourselves to. But if we want to live truly authentic lives of integrity, then the only person we should be comparing ourselves to and trying to be better than; is to the person we were yesterday.
With bullying being such a huge issue in our schools, it is so important that we give our children the right tools so they know what to do if ever faced in the situation. One of those tools is teaching our children that not only is it important to be accepting of ourselves for the unique and wonderful people they are; we must accept ourselves in the same way. To Thy Own Self Be True!
Gina’s daughter Monica has been having a hard time learning her multiplication tables. “I can’t do this, it’s too hard!” Monica tells her mom. In a moment of desperation, Gina promises Monica that if she works harder and learns all her time tables by the end of the month she will take her to the zoo to see the new Panda exhibit she has been begging to go to. Monica becomes excited and this promise of a special outing is all she needs to study a little harder. Two weeks later Monica comes home from school very excited to show her mother a test she took. “I got them all right! Now I can multiple how many more minutes until you take me to the zoo! Can we go this Saturday?” she sings out loud and dances around her mom happily! “I’m sorry Monica but I have to work. Maybe next weekend we can go.” “But the exhibit ends this weekend and you PROMISED!” Monica whines disappointingly.
If you are like most parents, you can probably relate to the above scenario. Sure the promise may have been different; but the intention behind it most likely was the same. We make commitments to people all the time, and the reality is that many times we just are not able to keep them. While we make these promises with all good intentions, the reality is that a broken agreement like the one above can have a very dramatic impact on our kids.
A promise, as defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is: “a declaration that one will do or refrain from doing something specified; or a legally binding declaration that gives the person to whom it is made a right to expect or to claim the performance or forbearance of a specified act.” When we don’t keep a promise to our children, it sends the message to them that we don’t value them. They believe that we have chosen to put something else ahead of our commitment to them. Even when we break small promises, our kids learn that they cannot count on us. Whether it’s going to the zoo or getting grounded for slamming the bedroom door, when parents consistently keep their promises, kids learn dependability. They learn that when mom and dad say they will take away their iphone if they go over their minutes… they will do it!
When a child grows up with parents who only make promises they can keep, that child learns the value of a promise; and that child will grow up to be a person of integrity who also only makes promises that he or she can keep.
Making and keeping promises to ourselves is equally important as making and keeping promises to others. We have discussed in class with our students that making a promise to others carries with it a responsibility to do everything we can to complete our promise. So if we promise to meet someone at a given time, or to pick some one up or teach them a skill – keeping the promise builds trust in each other.
All of us are willing to go to great means to be sure that our word is good with others. We should however consider the effects of keeping promises to ourselves. Our commitment to keep our word and promises to ourselves also builds trust. We may make a promise to ourselves to be on time for an event or in general. Breaking a promise to ourselves can begin to break down the trust we have in ourselves and damage our own self-respect. If we are a student in school and we promise ourselves to try our hardest or study our best – if we keep the promise we are feeling very good about ourselves – this builds self esteem, even if we did not score as high as we wanted to on a test. Think though how we feel about ourselves if deep down inside we know we did not keep that promise of giving our best.
In time we may even stop making promises to ourselves and begin living our lives without goals or aspirations. How sad to take the possibility of our great life that we have and allow it to become just mediocre. Even sadder if we are a parent for our children to watch us not keep promises to ourselves and for them to lose respect for our parenting.
We can do all of this by being careful about the promises we make with ourselves and be sure they are realistic and attainable. We should think about the trustworthy factor both in ourselves and that of others in us. Making and keeping promises will tend to grow our trust in our own abilities and motives. Keeping our promises will build our self esteem.
A promise is a contract and is important to keep with others and ourselves.
We parents, for the most part, all want the same things for our kids. Yes we want them to grow up healthy, happy and resilient; but even more so we want them to be good people. Having integrity is a huge part of being a person with strong character, thus the reason why we strive so hard to teach our kids right from wrong. But the reality is our children cannot develop integrity unless they see what integrity looks like first. That is where you, the parent, come in! If we want our kids to grow up honest and truthful, then we need to model that behavior. Most of time we do just that too, but sometimes…
It’s 5:30pm and you are in the middle of making dinner when the phone rings. Your hands are covered in ground meat and breadcrumbs and you need to get this meatloaf in the oven if you are ever going to eat tonight so you ask your daughter to grab the phone. You look over her shoulder and notice on the caller ID that it is your Great Aunt Betty who loves to chat endlessly and gets her feelings hurt when you try to cut her off before she is through. In a moment of desperation you mouth the words to your daughter, “Tell her I’m not here!”
Children are smart, real smart and they know that telling Great Aunt Betty that you are not home, when you obviously are, is a flat out lie! Perhaps a justifiable little white lie because you need to make dinner and you were trying to spare her feelings. None the less, to your child that white lie is the same as if they said they didn’t eat a cookie even though the crumbs on their shirt say something else.
Being honest all the time is hard, but if we are demanding that our children be truthful shouldn’t they see us at least attempting to do the same thing? If we want our kids to be able to come to us when they have problems, to trust us, to seek and accept our advice; they need to know that we mean what we say.
So the next time you are busy when Great Aunt Betty calls, stop for a second and remember who is watching. Modify the old “She’s not home” routine, and perhaps use the “She’s unable to come to the phone,” or “I’m sorry, she’s busy right now” one instead; both of which are truthful alternative responses that will send the message of what integrity looks like to your child.