Can You Teach Your Kid To Care?

29 Dec

The other night the three year-old accidentally closed the five year-old’s hand in a stepstool, and I had an out-of-body experience. I couldn’t get her hand free for what felt like an eternity (but was likely 5 seconds), and shrieking just escaped from me. Terrible parenting, I know, but I couldn’t control it. I come from a long line of over-reactors, so it cannot be helped. It’s in my DNA.

So what about the fact that the three year-old was crying even harder than her injured big sister? I’ll acknowledge that my hysterics possibly influenced her reaction, but she was truly and genuinely upset and concerned. I’m sure fear and guilt contributed to her tantrum, but she also wept apologies to her sister and asked if she was okay. There were definite signs of compassion. As a parent, seeing this caring behavior warmed my heart.

While my heart swells with pride watching my child show empathy, it just as quickly deflates from the disappointment of apathy. And that’s where I found myself just one day after the stepstool incident – deflated. This time it was the three year-old who was hurt and needing help. When big sister entered the room asking for assistance with a toy instead of asking if her sister was alright, it ticked something off in my brain.

“Can’t you see that she’s hurt? Ask her what’s wrong! Ask her if she’s okay!”

I so badly wanted her to show sympathy, kindness, compassion….I got none of that. What I did get was a secondary fit due to the fact that I was unwilling to stop with the injured child and help fix a game.

Was it wrong to be so disappointed by this apparent lack of concern? Did she even truly lack concern? And what good does it do to try to force words, phrases and actions from my child as if I’m a puppeteer?

Say, “Hello.”
Say, “Thank you.”
Say, “Are you alright?”
Give her a hug.
Say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. It was an accident.”
Say, “That’s okay. I forgive you.”
Say, “I love you.”

I guess it’s one thing when a child is first learning, but sometimes it feels like coercion.

One thing I have come to realize about my kids is that they deal with their emotions in completely opposite ways – one keeps her feelings to herself, and the other wears hers on her sleeve. I know in my heart that they are both caring people, but having empathy and showing empathy are two very different things.

Thinking about this difference led me to consider my role as a parent in the development of this very important skill, and I wondered – Are people born with the ability to understand other’s feelings and show compassion or is it learned? Is it a parent’s job to teach a child to care or to teach a child to show she or he cares?  And so, as all potentially questionable fact seeking/research begins, I Googled it…

Now I make no claims that this site offers “the best” or “the most” information on the development of empathy, but I like it, so I’m sharing it here.

The University of Alabama Parenting  Assistance Line answered the question of whether or not children are born with the ability to understand and share the feelings of another by stating:

“We are born with the capacity for empathetic behavior, but whether or not we mature into caring, understanding adults is principally determined by what we are taught.”

The site goes on to give some great, age appropriate tips for encouraging empathy in children. And thankfully, none of those tips include persuading your kids to repeat what you say….


3 Responses to “Can You Teach Your Kid To Care?”

  1. When the Kids Go To Bed December 29, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    Maybe it’s an oldest thing? My four-year old is empathetic to both of his brothers, the six-year old is only empathetic to me and the baby. I have to remind him to ask if his brother is okay. I sometimes think it’s because he’s more worried about being in trouble for being the one that actually hurt his brother even if it was an accident.

    • Hillary Manaster December 29, 2011 at 1:30 pm #

      I agree. Nervousness,fear and guilt get all tangled up in lots of these scenarios.

  2. Nina Badzin December 29, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    Great post, Hillary. I think about this stuff too. It drives me crazy when the one who did the hurting (whether on purpose or on accident) tries to usurp the attention of the injured party by throwing a fit. It happens all the time and I know it’s a normal reaction for kids, but I often want to shriek, “Don’t make everything about YOU.” I control myself, but I do try to teach that lesson . . . that not everything can be about any one particular child. Compassion is a great word for the same thing!

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