I Want Them To Feel Me, Not Fear Me.



How do we teach empathy? Is it even teachable?

I recently said these words to my husband after an infuriating moment I had with one of our sons:

I don’t want him to fear me, I want him to feel me, you know?

And just like that, it hit me. I may want him to feel me, get me, understand those oh so important life lessons about character and morals that I find to be supremely more important than academic achievements, and yet, I am not sure I am teaching from the right play book. How am I teaching you ask? Well, by frustration mostly. I get easily tempered, and am often slow to pause and explain. I operate life in fast forward motion most of the time. For these reasons, I think I am missing the greatest lesson there is: we learn when we are led, not when we are taught. We lead when we are passionate, and we follow when we are trusting. My children are not bought in yet to learning all the vital lessons I have to share with them about being a good person with a pure soul, because I am not always being a leader, I am fixated on being their teacher. But I forget that teaching empathy requires action, it can’t be learned like the multiplication tables. I need to take the time to show them through real-life examples. So I am working on this.

So far, this is what I know for sure. I want my children to grow up as good people more than smart people, with good hearts, who can put themselves in other people’s shoes. Because being good is what will make you smart. I want them to believe in themselves and believe they can change the world by giving the best of themselves to it. I worry I get it wrong a lot, that perhaps I am teaching through fear, rather than feel. I realize that so much of my children’s influences don’t come from home. They come from school, friends, and everywhere else.  I worry that I am in competition with every other influence they have, especially in the way I teach my children about the lessons you can’t learn in books. The school system teaches the importance placed upon tests, projects, pop quizzes, dioramas to cement the building blocks like reading, writing, math and geography. So how do I teach outside of these models, which often leave a child’s memory shortly after they have been graded; as I try to teach them how to be more than just an excellent student with good recollection? How do you teach empathy? How do I help them feel the importance of compassion in a way that will stick with them?

This worry presses in on my heart often. When I see my children in need of a reminder, or a fresh lesson on what it means to show empathy. Or kindness. Or gratitude. Or humility. And when I realize I am in need of the same refreshers. Since I am my children’s most important teacher, their best leader, I must get this right. There is no term paper I can assign or multiple choice I can give to prove concretely whether they have grasped the concepts of being what I define as a successful human being: kind, honest, humble, empathetic, and good. I just have to have faith that they are soaking it all in. That I am showing them enough, that it shines through, over the rest of traditional stuff they are taught without much explanation for why and how it will ever be necessary to living as a good person. My hope is to be the best teacher I can be for them. Not by fear, but by getting them to feel me. So that when I look around at the four exquisite faces I have led into the rest of their lives, the proof will be in every example I set and choice that I made, because they followed my lead.

I don’t really care how fast or slow they learn to read. Or tie their shoes. Or master algebra. Or simple division.

I very much care how well they will learn to be a motivator for others who need encouragement. Or a help to those who are weak. Or a champion for the underdog. Or master humility. Or simply, how to divide their time between what they will love, with what they won’t.

I don’t care about how high they will rise to the top of a perfect attendance list, a principal’s list, a teacher’s list, or a spelling list.

I care very much how high they will rise to the top of their own list.

I don’t care if my child never aces another test in school. Or if they ever fail an assignment that they didn’t believe in, or just simply didn’t understand, as long as they tried.

I care deeply that my child is instilled with the truth- that nobody aces life all the time, or really, ever; unless they learn first how to be a good person, and then go out and live as one. And even then, there is no perfect grade in life. We will still bomb some tests, some times. High achievers included.

So how do I teach empathy to my children when the majority of their hours of learning are at school? Do schools even have a benchmark for empathy? Do the libraries carry the Empathy For Dummies manual? I’m guessing not. Mostly because there is no manual, and because teaching empathy in school won’t help a child learn how to recite the process of photosynthesis or locate India on a map. School is there to teach the basic concrete tools to build upon, to prepare children for adulthood; to be capable of making a living and a contribution in our world, without much regard for their hearts. I am here to teach my child how to be a good person, and how to contribute their goodness to our world; to teach their hearts.  Empathy is learned when it is shared. While our littlest children are taught to memorize their ABC’s, it’s my job as a parent to reinforce that K is for kindness, and it is always going to be paramount to what J is for, which rhymes with twerk.

Being empathetic or compassionate or kind or brave doesn’t always fit well with the model of the school system, maybe because it doesn’t appear to serve much purpose in turning out contributors to society? Children are not tested or praised for how nice they can be to each other in school; they are tested  for facts of usefulness and praised when enough of them get it right to warrant a pizza party. And yet empathy is vital in our real, non-standardized life. It is my duty to prepare my children for the real measure of success. A part of me cringes when I read yet another story or hear from my own children’s mouths about yet another bully situation. Or of a circumstance at school where a child’s heart is neglected, glossed over, mistreated, or ignored. Its in these moments that I feel compelled to shake my child by the shoulders and say to him, Oh baby, this is not what life is meant to be. You can be kind without being teased for it. You should always choose to be loving and helpful without fear of being ostracized or condemned. Be confident in the strength of your heart and ignore those who want to put you down for it! Goodness does not come from how much you know, but how much you care. But honestly? preaching to my kids like that is probably unrealistic. In one ear.. and they are on to the next. Just as I have completely forgotten the principles of long division learned long ago, though I am certain at one time I might have aced a test on it once..  Tell a child and they will forget, show them, and they might remember. Practice daily, and they will learn. Its through actions our children will soak these life lessons in. All I can hope for is to lead by example, and wait. Wait for the day they are old enough to finally understand that school is just the first example of many where they will identify that people can be cruel, harsh, judge, torment, ignore, and betray. And that there are many opportunities in life to be something more, and it begins with empathizing, and leads to understanding.

When I encounter situations with my children when I see their heart searching for an answer, a way to behave, when its the unpopular or discouraged thing to do amongst their peers, I want to grab the moment by both hands as I think, This, THIS! is a golden opportunity to teach my child that there is so much more to life than being a good test taker, or at memorizing and delivering speeches, or being the first to finish a science project, proving the theory correct that science projects are meant to drive the human parent species to drink.

I want to seize the moment and sit them down and tell them about all the reasons that empathy will lead them to a much better life than being the best, the smartest, or the biggest ever will. But instead I will show them. How to embrace being flawed, unsure, vulnerable with their heart. The importance of letting their feelings show. Being a kind friend, choosing the loving route. My hope is that somehow, somewhere between all the “education” the world keeps dishing out to my little loves about all the concrete principles they are expected to know in order to be prepared for the future; that I have clutched tightly, as if they were bars of soap that slipped under the water, to the teachable moments where I can show my children how to be true high achievers in this life.

So, how do we teach empathy? maybe we don’t. Maybe we just practice showing it. Maybe we just practice seeing each other. Maybe, just like so much else in life, its not about making sure my children understand the concept, and can articulate the reasoning, reverse the formula; and ace the test. But rather its about living out all the most important life lessons I hope they will be so accustomed to receiving in their childhood, that they wake up one day, so bought into the daily practice of how to live as a good person, one who exhibits traits of love, kindness, humility, empathy; that they can’t even remember how or when they were ever taught them. Because they weren’t. They just lived alongside it, and it was felt, in a family where it was so natural and so regular, it just became a part of who they are. This is the lesson I am still learning myself, so that I can be their greatest teacher.



Photo Credit: Jenny Bennett. Life Is Swell Photography