“Don’t throw sticks at the ducks!” I say for probably the 30th time.
“Or Rocks!” I add, frantically. “If you throw rocks and sticks, you’ll hurt the ducks and they won’t want to come get bread from you! Owwie! Owwie! Poor Ducks! Only throw bread!”
We took Fiona to the park in her Easter finery to feed the ducks. Gorgeous photos will be forthcoming. Eventually. It was a fun way to celebrate, especially given the limitations put on us by her food allergies and our own non-religious tendencies.
The thing I noticed though, is that empathy is a learned trait and it’s composed of many layers and lessons. The first, of course, is treating a child with gentleness and respect. You can hardly expect someone to understand that they have to respect others feelings, if no one respects theirs. They wouldn’t even have that concept to work from.
The second lesson is more developmental than anything else. Others are separate from me and have feelings which are not my own. Weird. You mean, I’m really not in control of everything that ever was? This is crappy. I think we should do it my way: you should feel what I want you to.
The third is that you have to be able to imagine yourself as the other. That’s why this age is perfect for learning empathy, and probably why it’s so difficult to teach later. This is the age of imagination. This is the age when fingers become ponies and swings are rocket ships and she’s a princess, or a dog, or a tiger, or a Daddy. She’s trying to figure all those feelings and motivations out right now and it’s the perfect time to learn people.
The fourth step is to teach that those other feelings have value. She has to learn that it matters, intrinsically, whether others are happy or sad. The tricky part of this probably bothers most parents: I want to teach her to care how other people feel, but not learn to devalue her own thoughts and feelings and emotions.
She needs to be able to feel sad for others sadness, without sacrificing her own well-being for their happiness. I don’t want her to become a people-pleaser. I want her to care about others. It’s such a fine balancing act.
I always fall off the beam on the side of pleasing others. I had a hard time learning to say no to anything. You can imagine all the different ways that could cause anyone, especially a girl, to struggle.
So, I’m teaching empathy, but I’m also teaching self-confidence and self-empowerment. It’s harder to teach because, empathy is a strength, but standing-up-for-myself isn’t. When another child snatches, I tell her to say, “No snatching, please. I was playing with it. I will share later.” If someone isn’t sharing, I tell her to say, “May I play too? Can we take turns? Can we share?” Usually it works, and when it doesn’t the other child’s parents usually intervene.
Ducks are easier. It’s black and white. And mallard green. You only have to look at it from their point of view. The ducks won’t take advantage or be mean or need to learn empathy. (Though I’d love to see someone try to teach a duck empathy. That would be pretty hilarious to watch.)