Empathy in Parenting

Empathy in parenting.  How much?  How little?  When do you comfort your kids while they cry it out?  When do you tell them to suck it up?


Sometimes I go in circles worrying that I am creating emotionally dependent children, because I will almost always choose the path of empathy.  Does this teach them the world will stand at attention every time they are upset or have a complaint? Or am I teaching them to pause, feel, reflect, and go on?  My HOPE is that I am modeling compassion to them, and that when they are emotionally sophisticated enough to understand how things work, they will be mature enough to need me a little less.

Empathy in Parenting

The other night we were at a friend’s house, and there was an incident that illustrated the question of too much/too little empathy with kids.  One of my daughters came to us, complaining that the flip-flops she was wearing weren’t sturdy enough to use while riding the rope swing in the backyard.  The shoes kept flying off, leaving her bare feed to rub raw on the rope.  Granted, not really a “big deal,” but she was discouraged about it.

Before I could say anything, our friend reacted with, “Oh!  Come ON!  Just deal with it!  I’m sorry, but you’re talking to me.  You should know you’re not getting any sympathy** here!!”  This friend had actually said this about herself before – with almost a hint of pride – that she has no sympathy for her kids when they’re whining.  I understand not wanting to feed into whiney behavior – but do kids need to be shut down so swiftly? How about offering a solution?  A suggestion that might work?  Or if there’s no solution in sight, maybe just say “Sorry, kiddo, it looks like you’ll have to choose between the rope swing or no swing.”

Because you know what I think happens when a kid knows their concerns won’t be taken seriously?  They stop coming to you.  I could see it my daughter’s face when this friend addressed her like that.  There was a mix of surprise, disappointment, and an expression of “Well, ok, forget you!”  And the truth is, we don’t always know how big or small our children’s concerns are in their own eyes.  I think we’re too quick to assign our own adult judgement to things, forgetting that kids don’t have the skills yet to filter between big concerns and small.

But this doesn’t only happen with kids – I see it happen between adults all the time.  It’s been a long day with your two children, you’re talking on the phone with a friend and when you express your fatigue she tells you, “Yeah, well try having 4 kids under 5 years old!”  This happens, right?  Someone always has a bigger fish tale, and we all know people who’d rather tell you theirs instead of quietly listening to you and letting you express your own concerns.  And how do you feel about those types of people?  Do you continue to share your thoughts and feelings with them?  Probably not.

I don’t know – I just think there’s a danger in shutting the door to our children at such a young age.  They don’t always know what is appropriate in terms of getting all worked up – so I think we need to show a little patience and help them navigate it.  I’m not saying give IN to it – it’s certainly a balancing act.  But don’t shut them off altogether and give them the impression that we just won’t hear it.  That’s my bottom line, and with tissue, a backrub, bandaid, or big hug, I’m sticking to it.

Sympathy vs. Empathy
Sympathy = making your child’s problem your own, “absorbing their crazy” is what I call it.
Empathy = standing in your own space, able to objectively see your child’s problem and give them compassion and instruction for dealing with it.
Maybe parents confuse the two? And are afraid to not only feed into a sense of whiney-ness, but then internalize it themselves? But throwing out empathy with sympathy is like the baby and the bathwater. I personally think there’s a way to express compassion and teach coping skills while not internalizing all your child’s problems.

What do you think? Where do you fall on the spectrum of having empathy with your children?

  • I think your bottom line is excellent. It’s too easy to label concern or sympathy as spoiling. (wonder what those no-sympathy people might think if terms like “neglect” were used to describe their actions.) There’s a difference between whiny behaviour and a need to vent. Life is unfair, and most adults get to articulate that. Let a child cry about it and we tell them to stop begin whiny. It’s a double standard that can’t be redeemed.

    As for your observation about adults, you’re right on there, too. Too often, it’s easy to play the one-upmanship game. But it doesn’t speak compassion. You may have more kids and in fact the harder part, it doesn’t mean that the other person isn’t suffering at the moment.

    I hope you found a solution for your flip-flopped, rope swinging daughter. I suspect that some of her reaction has to do with the fact that she isn’t treated that way by you.

  • Mom

    It’s a constant tightrope you walk while raising your children. Am I too strict…am I too lenient…is always on your mind. Am I doing something now that will affect his/her life forever? While sitting around, as adults, talking about their childhood…will they have more good memories than bad? Oh why don’t they come with instructions? Am I there for them? Have I missed something? Am I on top of everything they’re doing? Have I given them confidence and independence? Tt goes on and on Stac…you just have to go with your “gut” and hope you’ve done the right job so none of them end up on “Oprah”! 🙂

  • Adults can be very disrespectful and mean to kids. Whether disciplining or just chatting, it is important to model how you want them to deal with the world. So, I agree with you completely about the family member. And the fact is that the problem isn’t important, it’s training kids to be more solution oriented. They become very creative and empowered that way.

  • I struggle with this question all the time–my husband belongs to the “quit whining” camp. I try to make a distinction between whining to get out of work and seeking sympathy when it’s needed. Husband thinks I’m too soft, I think he’s too strict. I do know that when they are teenagers, they are going to be talking to me rather than him.

  • Valerie/Quilt_Mommy

    I have someone close in my family who does that “you should know you’re not going to get any sympathy from me” stuff! I’m all grown up and boy does it make me feel small! I love this person very much – but it’s exactly like you said, I have learned to go to someone else to talk. What you are talking about in your post is something I struggle with daily – not only with my kids but with the people in my life. Being present and listening to others, even if your problems are bigger, you’re so right, everyone wants to be heard, and wants someone to sympathize and validate, to say that yes, right now things really do suck for you! Lol*

    Gosh I really do believe things happen for a reason…your post just brings up so many things that have been going on in my life, I’m so glad you got me thinking about it! 🙂