When you think about the most important skills to teach your kids, what comes to mind At the top of my list are the four C s – critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. While many of our amazing schools prioritize teaching these skills to our kids, so much of what they need to learn in these areas can and should come from us, their parents. Yet, many of us just don't know where to start.
Turns out, there s a process that can help us figure this out. To create a home life where everyone feels safe enough to explore. To help us respond thoughtfully to our kids questions and needs, rather than react without thought. To have meaningful conversations with our teen about things that matter.
We can lay the foundation for teaching these skills – and so much more – if we commit to building an empathy practice in our lives. Empathy, it turns out, is a real family-dynamic game-changer.
So, what exactly do I mean by an empathy practice
Well, empathy is about stepping into the shoes of other people, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide our actions. It's different from expressions of sympathy – like pity or feeling sorry for somebody – because these don't involve our trying to understand the other person’s emotions or point of view.
Sometimes, empathy is misunderstood as the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The reason this isn t quite right is that the golden rule assumes that the person you are trying to empathize with would want you to do for them what you would want done for you it assumes that your interests coincide with theirs.
What empathy really is is more like the platinum rule do unto others as they would have you do unto them. The platinum rule asks us to resist the temptation of projecting our own experiences, views or needs onto others, and to understand them and their needs well enough to do what they want from us, and not just do what we would want from them.
When it comes to building an empathy practice that helps you better connect with your kids, using the platinum rule instead of the golden rule might look something like this: even if your 5-year-old self would ve LOVED a sports-themed birthday party, resist the urge to plan the kindergarten Olympics for your art-loving 5 year old. Instead, plan the art-themed party your child really wants (platinum rule), not the one you d have wanted at their age (golden rule).
And guess what Your kids can do this with you and one another, too. Children as young as two or three have the ability to put themselves in someone else s shoes, meaning they can practice (cognitive) empathy. This also means that they can practice the platinum rule alongside you. For example, when my son used to see his big sister crying or sad, he d offer her his paci, since that s what made him feel better. As he got older, however, and he saw she was sad, he d go and find her lovie going from the golden rule to the platinum rule understanding that what she needed from him was what made her feel better, not what made him feel better.
How can you use the platinum rule to help you have meaningful conversations with your kids about things that matter
A second type of empathy focuses on shared emotional responses — mirroring another person s emotions in an automatic, unconscious way (affective empathy). For example, think about your experiences with collaboration, at work or at school. Take a few moments to remind yourself how you ve felt when things went well, and when things got complicated within the group, and the project stalled. Use those memories and feelings when talking with your kids about the stuff that comes up when they work with others on a project, or play on a team.
How would practicing affective empathy help you better connect with your kids about topics like working well with others
Empathy is all about tuning in with yourself and your kids. It's about thoughtful reflection, deep understanding and careful listening all of which are super important when you re having conversations with your kids about the things that matter most.
Dr. Alison Trachtman Hill is the founder of Critical Issues for Youth, a sociologist, and mom of two. To learn more about her new e-learning platform for parents, log on to www.ci4y.com.