When kids are raised by empathic parents, they are likely to grow up feeling resilient, confident, and able to enact positive change in their communities. That’s because empathic parents take the long view. Rather than focusing on short-term compliance, empathic parents focus on the long-term goal of raising a well-adjusted, emotionally stable person who will thrive throughout life. Those who choose to parent consciously know that parenthood is a marathon, not a sprint.
I’ve broken the list up into two parts to give each concept its proper due. This week I’ll focus on the first two qualities often seen in gently parented adults: critical thinking & kindness/compassion. In this post, I'll use the terms empathic parenting, peaceful parenting, and gentle parenting synonymously.
1. Critical Thinking
Many parents view the barrage of questions as a challenge to their authority (e.g: “why do I have to eat my vegetables before I can have dessert?”). This mindset often leads parents to discourage such questions in the future with statements like, “because I said so!”
If we want to raise critical thinkers, however, we must welcome these questions. This doesn’t mean the rule will change, but it means we are fostering curiosity and an open mind. Through this process we can teach our children to ask important questions with thoughtfulness and precision.
Questions are natural for small children who have only been on the planet a few years. Questions help them understand the world around them and how their families function. We are attributing false motives when we assume our children are challenging us, when in fact they are simply seeking to understand.
In addition to fielding questions, we can encourage thinking skills by stepping back and allowing our children to problem solve. Sometimes we want so badly for them to succeed that we’re quick to jump in with the next puzzle piece or the answer to a difficult homework question. Rather than unnecessarily rescuing our children, let’s give them the skills to rescue themselves.
2. Kindness & Compassion
When we punish, we essentially teach our children to focus on how to avoid punishment. That’s not the same thing as kindness, and it means that pro-social actions will only be carried out through further threats of punishment. Rather than turning a child’s focus outward to how another might be feeling, punishment turns a child’s focus inward as they consider how they can get what they want while avoiding adverse treatment.
Endless research has proven that spanking increases violence and antisocial behavior. In one study, children who were physically punished were more likely to endorse hitting as a means of resolving their conflicts with peers and siblings. Spanking isn’t the only problem. It’s merely an extreme example of how ineffective punishment will be in meeting long-term goals.
Peaceful parents model kindness throughout daily life, from processing interactions on the playground to responding to our own kid’s meltdowns with empathy. Children who are accustomed to being affirmed and understood often do the same for their peers, setting in motion a pattern of kindness for its own sake.
This point is further illustrated by a study done with 7th graders using punishment to shape behavior as described in Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn, “In deciding how to act with other people, these children didn’t take specific circumstances into account, nor did they consider the needs of a given individual” (page 31). If we have data to suggest that punishment reduces empathy, it is clearly an exercise in futility to punish a child with the goal of kindness and compassion in mind. As Alfie Kohn later explains in Unconditional Parenting, “bad things done for good reasons aren’t nearly as helpful as good things done for good reasons” (Page 219).
Peaceful parents have consciously changed their paradigm from one of punishment and control to one of respect and coaching based on an understanding of child development. Parenting expert Dr. Shefali Tasabary explains that when a child is engaging in a behavior we don’t condone, there is likely either a lack of skill/maturity or an unmet need being expressed. As I’ve stated before, no amount of punishment can speed up brain development. If a child doesn’t have the cognitive ability to act differently, we are to blame for expecting more than a child can deliver. Dr. Shefali recommends that parents, “never attack the behavior; always go with the need."
Empathic parents know that we can focus on the needs of others and urge our kids to think outside themselves not by emphasizing consequences to them, but rather focusing on how their actions impact other people. For example, when a four year old hits his little brother, a time-out won’t teach him why he shouldn’t hit his brother anymore, and it won’t help him learn how to repair a relationship. It will only teach him that if he gets caught hitting his brother, he’ll be in trouble.
If we instead model empathy for the brother, “Ouch, I bet that really hurt! I’m so sorry that happened to you!” while coaching the four year old about what might make his little brother feel better, with time he will learn how his actions affect others and how to make amends when he harms someone. Furthermore, he will become more adept at reading the emotional and social cues of others and reacting to them appropriately.
Peaceful parents model kindness throughout daily life, from processing interactions on the playground to responding to our own kid’s meltdowns with empathy. Children who are accustomed to being affirmed and understood often do the same for their peers, setting in motion a pattern of kindness for its own sake. In Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn explains, “We can help a child learn to imagine another person’s point of view, but as parents our first priority must be to imagine how things look from the child’s point of view. That’s not just a way to model this particular skill: It’s a staple of good parenting. Period” (Page 204).
Child therapist and author Katie Hurley would likely agree with Kohn. She explains that showing our children kindness and empathy is the best way to ensure that we cultivate these values in them, "The truth is, they turn around and show empathy and kindness in return...They learn, 'It felt good when mom understood me.' And they learn to say, 'I know how you feel.' We need to reduce our own fears about 'What am I raising?' and say to ourselves, 'I'm raising a kid who knows what it feels like to be understood.'...To raise empathetic kids we have to be empathetic people, and that starts at home." I'm inclined to agree.
Check out Part II of the two part series here!