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Beyond peek-a-boo: Mastering more complex parenting lessons, like teaching empathy

Parents fuss over every detail of early childhood, but as kids grow older, how can teachable moments evolve to cover more complex lessons such as teaching empathy?

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Mary, Mary, quite contrary

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockleshells

Recommended: Year-round giving: 8 family volunteering opportunities

And pretty maids all in a row.

Remember when you became a brand new parent to that bright-eyed, sweet, tender infant? Well-intentioned advice seemed to transpire from every conversation. “You should breast feed for at least a year.” “Nap when your baby naps.” “Make sure they do tummy time daily.” “You absolutely must get the Snuggabunny Cradle swing!”

It’s remarkable how much energy and attention parents give to the early years of child rearing. I look back on that time astonished by all the books and blogs I read, seminars I attended, and friends who gave me their secrets to success… all pertaining to the early stages of basic childhood development. But once we passed the point of survival (hooray!) something happened to the influx of information and critical conversations.

The independence that begins with toddlerhood into adolescence is a beautiful thing, as is the freedom to be a little less hands-on and orchestrated with every move. It becomes easier and easier to just let life come at us and roll with the punches. We spend less and less time reading, planning, contemplating, and especially talking about those “lessons learned and keys to success for good parenting” with other moms and dads.

But as our kids grow up in the blink of an eye, amongst all the hustle and bustle of homework, soccer games, piano practice, sleepovers, and holidays, how (and when) do these little women and men we are raising grow into productive, successful, contributing members of society?

I recently participated in a 5-week “Parenting Changemakers” conversation with moms and dads of children from 2-20 years old. It was refreshing; a remarkably different parenting conversation than I have ever had. Rather than discussing black and white do’s and don’ts, the premise of the entire dialogue centered on the type of world our children are being raised in – and the type of skills they will need to succeed.

How do we prepare our children to flourish in a global economy with rapidly evolving technology, newly emerging industries and sectors, where the jobs of tomorrow don’t even exist today and the only true constant seems to be change? How can our sons and daughters not only survive, but thrive and lead through their relationships, careers, and communities of the world of today – and tomorrow?

How can parents, their first and most influential teachers, begin equipping kids with experiences and skills that prepare them for the rapid pace of change, creativity, and the mandate of adaptability necessary for the relationships and environments they will encounter throughout their lifetime?

What became crystal clear through my Parenting Chagnemaker experience is that it starts right here, right now, with you the parent – however young or old your children might be. The skills they need for effective “changemaking” cannot wait or rely on formal education.

Our group talked a lot about preparing children for healthy relationships with peers, authority figures, and people from different backgrounds. In considering what best prepares people for healthy relationships, we looked to our own upbringings and those of our children. Through an authentic blend of personal anecdotes and stories, we arrived at a fascinating consensus that one of the most predictive indicators was growing up in a household where your parents didn’t talk negatively about others.

When children never heard their parents talk disrespectfully about one another, teachers, parents, friends, or kids, it instilled an incredible level of trust and high valuation of healthy relationships. It also taught children to respect their own and others’ self-worth as humans regardless of what they did/not have in common. Now as simple a principle as this might seem, how often do you see or hear “don’t talk badly about anyone behind closed doors” topping the parenting advice charts?

We also spent a lot of time discussing the cultivation of empathy. This conversation began with exposure to cultural diversity but quickly grew beyond exposure to actually understanding and valuing others. One parent in our group pointed out that when she was growing up, they actually didn’t have to “draw on empathy” as much because there were not a lot of people around to relate to different than she was. So essentially she is instilling a value in her children that she never experienced at their age – and that can be tricky.

Another mom grew up in the military and recalled a lot of exposure to different cultures around the world – but that empathy was actually completely absent in the home because of the strict hierarchical/ supremacy culture and values system of the military’s (and her family’s) social construct.

A cornerstone of our conversation on empathy rested on self-awareness and contextualizing feelings. Our stories peeled back layer after layer, emphasizing the ability to validate self-feelings before kids can understand or validate the feelings of others. And then realizing that someone else’s feeling might be very different than their own in the same situation. How can we teach this on a daily basis?

One mother’s son had a teacher who told him, “that’s nothing to cry about.” She wishes that her son, instead of being told as a directive, was encouraged to think about why he was crying and self-identify that he is sad and why. Then later on, he can better identify when his sister cries.

From the earliest of ages, we can go beyond whether an action is right or wrong and inquire, “How did it make you feel when x happened?” This helps spark thoughts that a) Mom actually cares about how I feel… b) Wait, how do I feel? c) Perhaps I should care more about how I feel and contemplate why. Consequently, d) this makes me consider how others might feel.

One dad shared an example, “When my son hurt his sister and she said ‘you hurt me’, his reaction is much more empathetic having heard directly from the one he hurt, rather than hearing me say, ‘you hurt her’ in a disciplinary approach.” An idea from our group to spark “aha empathy moments” in young children was to select a fictional character they admire and ask, “how do you think that would make Minnie Mouse feel?”

Participating in this group was a parenting game changer for me. These few stories offer just a sliver of insight into the refreshing and relevant conversations that took place over our five weeks together. Additional critical skills we discussed include leadership, teamwork, and entrepreneurship. Ashoka, the organization that launched the group, is committed to understanding common themes and patterns in parenting, in order to better support the journey of parents in empowering a society of effective changemakers.

So in our fast-paced, constantly changing society, how do we raise our children well? I strongly recommend the Parenting Changemakers group experience for all mothers and fathers interested in upping the ante on static parenting conversations. There is nothing that compares to the caliber of being in true community with your fellow parents – those walking the talk right next door to you, in the cubicle across the hall, a few cars ahead in the carpool line.

We must be willing to set aside time to share and learn from one another. Who knows what useful tips and comradery you will gain… For me, it includes, “Get your white daughter a black baby doll (or vice versa).” “Let your son navigate which way you drive home today.”  “Establish a family mission statement.” “Apologize to your kids.”

How much time do you spend thinking and talking about the skills that will ultimately carry your kids through their lives… their careers… their families… their identified unique purpose?

This article originally appeared on the Startempathy.org blog, published by the Start Empathy project from Ashoka.

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