There’s a change occurring in the world of parenting today. A gradual shift is taking shape and gliding toward new ways of envisioning and inhabiting the parent-child relationship. The old adages we grew up with — of children being seen and not heard, of sparing the rod risking spoiling the child, and of doing as I say not as I do — are loosing their mental grip on Western society and new thoughts and ideas are filling in that space. No one had Attachment Theory when our grandparents were being raised — though some of them of course were still experiencing deep parent-child bonding — there wasn’t a way of referencing it or of disseminating it as an approach to parenting, it wasn’t studied, it more than likely wasn’t even present in the intellectual mind of any parent using its like (much the way that something like “sexism in the workplace” wouldn’t be present in their thinking). Beginning with our great-/grandparents, most people in “developed countries”, until quite recently and statistically speaking still, parent/ed using at least some version (however mythologized it may have been) of B.F. Skinner’s Behaviorism and/or it’s antecedent and decedent modes of cultural thinking. When his work actually came out and was spread through the scientific community it shone as the loan example of science’s approach to parenting and so it rang as the tune of truth — unchallenged.
Today, we’re seeing what in many ways has reached the critical mass to be called a sweeping movement away from behavioral modification techniques, and toward methods of relating with our children that honour the biochemical and emotional bonds and the neural design of connection and social development that most humans naturally carry and express and share. Put another way, we’re realizing as a species that what works best in raising our young is to respect our nature as nurturers. We are exploring the antipodes of our parenting minds only to find our-instinctual-selves waiting for us upon those foreign shores. We’re now doing the research and now able to peek inside some of the neurological processes involved in child development, and it is becoming clearer and clearer that we are hard-wired to connect and work socially together, but the manner in which we are connected with directly relates to how well we develop our innate predilections. The other thing that has now been researched quite a bit more since the days of Skinner’s rise to popularity is just how deleterious behavior modification techniques can be to development, to the parent-child relationship, and to the emotional life of the child (throughout development and into adulthood), as well as how ineffectual behavior modification itself is as a tool in parenting — both in reproducing preferred behaviors and in reducing the ones that aren’t preferred. Having the current perspective that behavior modification doesn’t work and has negative repercussions on development and emotional stability on the one hand, and strong neuroscience displaying both the apparatuses for social(-izing) connection and the developmental effects of healthy attachment on these neural structures on the other hand, presents humanity with the grand opportunity to give ourselves over/back to our natures and our natural nurturing drives and instincts. And we seem to be doing just that.
One of the fastest growing subtitles of parenting advice is Attachment Parenting and its various offshoots — Positive Parenting, Natural Parenting, Connection Parenting, Gentle Parenting, Authentic Parenting, Aware Parenting and Empathy Parenting, among others. Natalie and I call the constellation of points we specialize in — Parenting on the Same Team — and while it is Attachment-based, we include aspects that go beyond the establishment and maintenance of attachment itself and focus on using the bond to build relationship and using that relationship to enhance our children’s development and inspire co-operation in both the long and short terms. And we, along with a whole host of other parenting thinkers, theorists, and mentors, happen to believe that Empathy is the sharpest tool in the proverbial shed of parenting.
So what’s all the hubbub, Bub? What’s the big freaking brain deal?! Why is it so important that we bother using Empathy (with a capital blinking E) when wrangling our particular (packs of) ankle-biters? And how the heck is all this snuggling supposed to help teach kids how to be good?!
Well here’s my current list of reasons why Empathy is the most important parenting technique we can learn:
- First and foremost — Empathy is the root of all social guidelines. Every decent law ever written, every code of moral conduct, every rule we try to instill in our children, all center on and originate from empathizing with others. That’s the end and it therefore ought to be the means of every direction or re-direction or interaction involving behavior(s). Teaching empathy is the shortest distance between our noble savage infants and the consistently caring, compassionate, “more civilized” adults that we hope to help them become.
- Second and secondmost — Empathizing is what our brains were meant to do. We are neurologically built to automatically internalize the experience of others we see around us. One of the processes/structures for doing that is the mirror neuron system — which, if you’ve been around this blog at all yet, you’ve endured me going on about before and with some frequency. When we see or even hear a smile, our brain runs a quick simulation of the neural-motor-process of making the same expression, and then gets an internal feel of the expression and it’s correlative emotion(s), in order for us to interpret the emotion(s) of the person smiling. When they are developed in a normal healthy manner, we use mirror neurons all day long to neurologically imitate and decipher the intent of what we experience others doing around us. In order to be able to interpret those sometimes very subtle movements and isolate those interpretations from our own feelings and even in order to understand what we ourselves are feeling and be able to regulate our emotions — we need empathy input during early development.
- Offering Empathy (en)trains our children’s brains to develop and express it themselves. Aside from the mirroring aspects of emotion, and of empathy, and of both individual and shared identity intimated above, and the manners in which modeling empathy helps teach our children’s brains to respond in kind; there is another brain structure involved here that is worth noting. It’s the cingulate cortex and I’ve mentioned it before as well. One of the interesting things about this area of the brain, largely devoted to the regulation of our emotions, is that it is one of the earliest developing (and oldest evolutionarily) structures in the so-called neo-cortex where our executive functions originate and later brain-structure enhancements reside. This old part of that new area, kicks in and begins running while the more specialized mirror neurons are adding programs (and more programs and even more programs…). So even before the infant brain is able to mirror all of what we are modeling in terms of the uses and expressions of empathy, the cingulate is aligning and harmonizing mother-infant emotional states. When a child cries out, the cingulate in his brain erupts into action, and in gearing up the mother’s brain for instantaneous responses (of various kinds across her entire nervous system), her cingulate is lighting up in much the same ways as the child’s. Interestingly, her immediate and calm response and the internal machinations of her own system’s calming itself down, help the mother to calm the child just by cingulate entrainment with him. Over time, the mother’s and other care-giver’s responses and cingulate harmonizing enable the child’s brain with (unconscious) self-soothing capabilities — and real ones, not the mythical self-soothing abilities that are supposed to appear out of nowhere to help infants put themselves to bed — as well as engendering a stronger cingulate response and fuller expression of empathy when they go to respond to others in need. Put more simply, when a mother responds empathetically to her child, she empowers the child’s brain with greater capacity for empathy. This all happens without a single lesson on why it’s important or on how to act with empathy.
- Responding to our children’s emotional processes with Empathy assists them in full neural development and access. You’ve surely heard, and I’ve of course mentioned before that we have three basic levels to our brains. The reptilian brain is the oldest most basic set of structures, governs all the bodily functions necessary to stay alive, and is shared among all living vertebrates. The mammalian brain governs our emotions and social behavior, is newer than, built on top of, but is superseded in developmental and functional priority by the reptilian portion. The rational brain is the latest set of neural structures and governs our abilities to problem-solve, think creatively, make decisions, and choose to express kindness among others, and its development and our access to it on any given day are contingent on the lower brains’ stability. If humans are emotionally upset, especially children, we lose access to our higher functions, and increasingly so as we get more upset. The reptilian and mammalian brains can just jump in and take control until their needs are met. If we happen to get truly upset, the reptilian brain will send us into fight-or-flight mode, temporarily usurping even our ability to process our emotions or access “mammalian processing” at all. So in order to help kids survive infancy, we have to take care of the reptilian brain. In order to give them access to social functioning, we have to care for the both the reptilian brain’s and the mammalian brain’s needs. And in order to develop and have access to the executive functioning in the rational brain, we have to tend to not only it’s needs but also the needs of it’s predecessors (in development, priority, and access). Sharing Empathy is the single best means for helping children process all emotions and get access to, and over time better develop, their executive capabilities. When we empathize with our little ones, and help them move through emotions they are processing, we help naturalize this process for them, we help make room for rational brain development, and we deepen the connections that make them feel safe and secure enough to continue developing and eventually spending more time in an executive-able state. When they “regress” during emotional episodes, we can use empathy to help them get through the feelings, and return to their (more) rational minds.
- Empathy feels good to us and safe to our children. When humans empathize, we feel the connective consciousness that comes with it. We feel closer to ourselves (if we’re self-empathizing) and to others (when offering empathy outward). When our children feel us hold them with our empathy, and can lean on us when they are “incapacitated” by emotional processing, they feel safe — in the world and even from the overwhelmingness of themselves and their own emotions. That safety is good for their brains, good for their emotional regulation, and good for our shared relationship with them.
- Empathy gives parents super powers. With empathy, and when we employ it, we can melt huge hairy arguments and evaporate giant gnarly issues. When we help kids manage the big feelings that come up when issues arise for them, we often find that the issues themselves disappear as the feelings shrink and shift. Empathy “covers us” when we’re going into the fray, restores order, and mends relations. When we use it on ourselves it can recharge our batteries, help us avoid potential disasters, and calm our own emotions enough to find patience and fortitude that we never knew we had. And, furthermore, empathizing (whether with self or others) can help reprogram our own brains to better deal with all present and future emotional stress, to choose more compassionate (re)actions, and to heal from past emotional suffering we experienced but didn’t get to release. Holy Single-Compartment Utility Belt, Batman!
- Empathy turns upsetting moments, issues, and episodes into opportunities to connect, to deepen and fortify the parent-child bond, to heal, and to prove (over and over) to our children’s brains that they are secure and welcome to develop here. By using empathy — when problems happen, they end in hugs, neural harmonizing, emotional healing and bonding, and psychological co-stabilizing. We help our children know that we can be trusted when they feel vulnerable, and we show them that relating is the way we work this life. This combination is ideal for helping to inspire co-operation in present and future endeavors, because our children wind up deepening the intellectual identification they have with us, feeling closer to us, and wanting to be caught up in the relating of the relationship all the more.
- Empathy is often all that we’re looking for when we ourselves are upset. I think 90% of the time, most of us don’t really want someone else to “fix” anything when we’re upset, we really just want to feel allowed to be upset for a moment, and feel our feelings, and process through them. Often when I see people argue, or have been involved in arguments, a good portion of the tension and discourse comes just from one person trying to justify why they feel the way they do… Sound familiar? Well, that’s because empathy is what we’re all seeking! What better reason to offer it to others than because it is what we ourselves would want in that or some similar moment? What better reason to empathize than because we empathize with how good it feels to get some empathy?!
I know there’s more I could come up with for you if I took a little more time, but at this point, I’m thinking maybe it’d be wisest not to take up any more of yours…
Be well my natural born empathizers. “Take the time it takes [to empathize] and it will take less time.” And don’t forget to breathe.
P.S. Want some ideas on how to do the empathizing? Here’s some, and here, and here some more! And there’s an excellent video on what empathy looks like here.
As Australia is about 20 years behind the USA, I haven’t seen a big sweeping movement here yet. Some practitioners are just starting to come on board.
This is why I love teaching Triple P (Positive Parenting Program) to parents because it’s a step to the left of behaviour modification, and a slightly greater focus on relationship. It’s the bridge to greater empathy for children and seeing them as people too.
Keep swimming Nemo !
I’m so glad you’re out there. I have such warm feelings stretching around the globe for all of the people I’ve gotten to become “virtually” familiar with who are working toward these same goals in all of their individual ways. I am so thankful for you, Narelle, and for the friendship we’ve shared — but also, and perhaps more mainly, I am thankful for the good work that you’re doing! Bless you, bless you, bless you, dear lady.
As to the movement — you’ll note that I said we’re “reaching the critical mass” to be considered a sweeping movement. Future herstory will see it as a sweep, I am fairly convinced. And even though you don’t see it gliding through the streets of Australia yet doesn’t mean it’s not beginning to take shape. You happen to be down in the proverbial trenches, so the outlook maybe grimmer, but the profundity of the effect is all the more striking and far reaching, I believe, because you aren’t just working with privileged social elites (who are often first to this sort of thing, but stingy with it as well!).
It IS a revolution, my friend. And we are on the front lines. Look back, you’ll see the tide rising behind you!
Be well, fellow change-maker. I’m glad we’re in this together.
Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…
What lovely encouragement Nathan, thank you.
One dad said to me recently “all of your talk about relationship is hitting me on the back of my head like a sledge hammer, now I know why I was so messed up, it all makes sense”.
Dr Matt Sanders, creator of the Triple P programme, says that 20% is the tipping point. If we can reach 20% of the parenting population, we will start to see tangible change which will have longer term effects on child mental health.
I am very grateful for the time and effort you put into your writing.
Oh yeah I forgot to add, Narelle, that (though it might not mean much to you “on the ground”) I think of the Down Under contingency as a major force! Certainly a third of my readers are there, and probably that much of the AP group(s) I hang out with on Facebook, and Natural Parenting is one of my favorite parenting magazines… So there’s plenty there to be proud of!
In any case, we’ll keep heading for that tipping point together!
Hakea, I’m also in Australia, where are you teaching parents on this? I’m interested for my studies in counselling.
Hi Rhian, I’m in Penrith NSW
I teach a parenting course called Circle of Security-Parenting (COS-P). I would encourage you both to search it on the internet. While the originators are based in the US, I know they do many trainings in Australia (as well as other countries). Cos-P is an evidence-based program built on decades of attachment theory research. One topic we explore extensively is empathy, the barrier parents may have in regards to empathy and validation of feelings, and self-awareness. I absolutely love this program and, while I wish I would have had access to this information when my children were young, I embrace it now and share it with all I am in contact with. 🙂
Hi Melody —
We are super-familiar with COS and appreciate it’s relationship to the above. Thanks for mentioning it…
One thing I didn’t quit realize is that empathy itself is so extensively explored. That’s really cool!
Good to know we’re on the same team, Melody!
I’m doing a little happy dance here, Nathan! THANK YOU for putting all of this in one place so I can share it with people when they question the value of empathy & raising children.
I was hoping to do just that. I’m so glad it worked!
P.S. Did you see I shared around your phantasmagorical post on helping our kids with self-image? I think it’s one of your all time best! (For everyone else — it’s this one: http://www.thetwincoach.com/2013/04/self-image-teaching-our-children-to.html).
Woo! Gettin’ it done!
Be well, dear friend.
Hello there. This is an extremely well written article. I’ll be sure to bookmark it and return to read more of your helpful info. Thank you for the post. I’ll definitely come back.
Yes! You are right. I am so pleased they have found you!
There are communities of parents reflecting on how they were parented and how they wish to parent. They are seeking each other out and asking questions. One of the best FaceBook groups I have found is an Australian based RIE group.
I have found that the most persistent parenting myths that block empathy are ‘attention seeking’ and ‘kids are manipulative’. But as you say, we’re creeping up on it.
KIds ARE manipulative — they are brilliant at getting idiots like us adults to give them what they need — attending! Now if only we were smart enough to listen better… 😉
We’re getting there.
This piece was cogent, well-written, and pithy.
Empathetic parenting makes sense, though I have seen parents who move to an extreme and use explaining empathically as a reason to not put in place rules or consequences. Children need to know they have a social responsibility as well. I think your point that children will behave or speak in the way that is Modelled as so unless we explain and act in an empathetic manner they won’t understand or behave in this way. My conundrum is how to teach empathy in a classroom setting when children display no empathy. Of course it needs to be modelled and this becomes tricky as parents and children expect consistent and fair use of school rules. The same rule for all is often not empathetic. To display and live empathetic ally we often have to treat people differently based on their abilities and needs. What do people think? Should parenting and teaching be a one set of rules for all approach? (Which often works best for children with learning difficulties. Anger management or an inability to self regulate.) what do people think?
I couldn’t help jump in here. Sorry Nathan.
I work as a wellbeing worker in a primary school. One of my favourite theories and one that I talk to parents and teachers about is Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. Below is a link of a talk by Rafe Esquith about his teaching in a disadvantaged school in Los Angeles. From 21 minutes he talks about Kohlberg, but the whole talk is great to view. I think it is a good place to start.
Not sure exactly what would interest you most so I’ll just say a couple brief things addressing your comments.
First, I think you hit on an important point about children having a sense of their “social responsibility”. Teaching empathy, and by that I mean modeling it, discussing it, employing it, practicing it’s application in a variety of scenarios and under various levels of supervision, is all about teaching social responsibility. There is no better way of teaching social responsibility than to help children see, feel, and process the emotions of others as well as their own. Rules actually distract in the same way that Prohibition did/does; punishments (or “consequences” as they are often misnomered) are generally seen as arbitrary by the punished and even more thoroughly distract from social responsibility by keeping the focus on the punished person’s feelings — not on the feelings of anyone else in the interaction; guilt creates resistance and animosity; and rewards or praise puts the focus on the pay-off rather than on the social content of the scenario. Empathy is the natural born (actual neurally structured, hardwired) and most effective means of teaching children about interacting with other people and their feelings.
Some people will take that too far — as some people will do with anything — and use it as an excuse for not leading their children in a healthy manner. I think there are two things about that, though, which are worth noting. First and foremost, as Alfie Kohn so poignantly charges in Unconditional Parenting, our fear of permissiveness is overblown and far out-measures any actual permissiveness out there; there is far and away more authoritarian parenting going on than there is permissive parenting, I assure you. And for the relatively small number of parents who really are avoiding setting any limits by solely and only talking about the feelings involved whenever there is an issue or behavioral mistake — I still think their kids are better off than those whose parents rampantly punish, threaten, guilt-trip, and bribe their children into temporary and almost exclusively “on-site” compliance with an increasing set of vague rules.
In terms of education, I think we should certainly abandon the current model and get back to a small community group, close leader:follower ratio, and more self-directed learning style of education. And yes, I absolutely think that in the ideal model the leadership that the children experience is as close to the same style in both home and school environs (if those are different environs at all) as is possible. The idea that education should be a “one-size-fits-all” endeavor is absurd. And one of the main problems with institutional schooling already is that we believe it should be different from, and perhaps better than, home life. We rush our children there too soon, and for too long everyday — if not in the name of education then in the equally ridiculous name of “socialization” — and they miss vital parenting and play and individual exploration and real-life social interaction. Then we have the nerve to act surprised when they don’t know how to behave like healthy, socially responsible people — they’ve never been given the opportunity to learn because they’ve been in the hermetically-sealed bubble of school and not interacting with or in the real world.
That’s my take on all of that, for what it’s worth. Thanks for joining in the discussion!
A perfect reply! Thanks for taking the trouble.