Including empathy as an essential ingredient in parenting prepares children to be loved at home and launched into the world. Without it, the values we work hard to instill fail to move forward with kids from childhood to adulthood. An empathetic approach to raising children helps their growing hearts learn to walk in the shoes of another person to understand different perspectives and inform their reactions.
Being “family” doesn’t guarantee connection, because families never consist of monochrome members. While we may share preferences, values, and traditions, no two individuals are the same. Personalities, stature, biology, interests, and gifts are only a few factors driving the diversity of people gathered in a single “family.” When relationships lack intimate knowledge, non-judgmental acceptance, and vulnerable connection, family life flies on a collision course towards offense, injury, and separation.
Within the greenhouse of home, empathy prepares kids to connect in a world different from the one they come from. Empathetic bonds link kids to the family that first loved them.
Before children prepare to launch and leave home to make their way, they learn to engage people with differing perspectives, feelings, and opinions. We first relate to our differences in the faces of relatives. In our very own homes of origin, we learn to see the world like others do, to process interactions without judgment, and to understand others informed by an honest understanding of ourselves. There are three ways empathy is an essential ingredient in our parenting.
1. Empathy Is Essential to Knowing Eachother
Think about self, others, and God’s big plan.
Exercising empathy involves approaching others, even siblings and family members, with curiosity. Instead of a nosey need to know information, this desire to be informed comes from wanting to know and be known. As we wonder about each other, we gain mutual familiarity. Intimate, caring awareness of one another becomes the norm within empathetic parenting practice.
It’s easy to develop a view of the world with our own feelings filling the space. Rather than allowing kids to set their interests exclusively on their selves, wondering together nurtures interest in the lives and feelings of others. It keeps kids from becoming the center of their own world. Empathetic parents benefit from gaining insights into their children, better understanding how to parent each one uniquely. Empathetic parents also help children to see themselves accurately in the context of others in their world.
Cultivating curiosity is the best way to train kids to think outwardly, develop a better view of self, construct awareness of others, and recognize God’s greater plan. Healthy parenting approaches model and encourage curiosity about each other inside the home and about people outside the home. This helps a family and its members to know where they fit in God’s bigger plan and live like their lives have God’s purpose.
Philosopher and writer Roman Krznaric said, “The 20th century was the Age of Introspection, when self-help and therapy culture encouraged us to believe that the best way to understand who we are and how to live was to look inside ourselves. But it left us gazing at our own navels.” God’s word cautions us, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment,” (Romans 12:3). While parenting the kids God gives us, we can feed curiosity about each other and move intentionally away from self-absorption.
To help empathy find a home in your parenting, ask thoughtful questions about your lives and the lives of people around you. Use questions inspiring more than a “this or that” response and answers revealing more than a “yes or no.” Use questions leading to knowing each other more deeply, so you know and relate to the perspectives and feelings of those in and around your home. As parents create an empathetic environment, individual family members catch the mindset, and together their compassionate curiosity characterizes their home.
2. Empathy Is Essential to Accepting Each Other
Process life together without judgment.
Discerning parents teach children how to be discerning in their world. Child raising naturally brings about distinctions like yes/no, come/go, and good/bad. While good parents cultivate good judgment, it’s not the same as being judgmental about the thoughts and emotions of others. In fact, exercising empathy towards one another informs our approach to the uniqueness of each person. Responding to decisions, feelings, and actions requires understanding. If we parent without it, we risk reacting in ways that wound ones we love, raise, and train.
Without making judgments, empathetic families work the muscle of considering how God wrote each person’s story. When we interact with loved ones in and out of home, we subconsciously tell ourselves a story about the other person. “She clearly doesn’t want friends,” or “She’s so confident and easy-going.” Children are wired to imagine, and imagination has the potential to foster intuition. Imagination helps us all remember there’s much left to discover, and we are limited in our knowing. It trains our parenting brain and our growing kids to keep in mind the wide range of possible experiences and the needs that come with them. God knows us fully and nothing is hidden from him. As we accept one another, we accept each image-bearing family member and the work God is doing in all of us.
When moms and dads practice and expect unconditional love and acceptance at home, children respond with greater transparency. Within an atmosphere of acceptance, it’s safe to practice life and safe to ask for guidance or debrief mistakes. Kids learn big lessons while still growing in a greenhouse of grace and love. This kind of environment encourages both questions and reflection about the steps taken along the pathway from childhood to adulthood.
When we practice how to identify and understand differences, we create an empathetic atmosphere. Questions help us develop this environment.
Questions to Identify Differences:
To make curiosity without judgment a part of family life, use questions like:
- How do you think that family is like ours? How are they different?
- Where do you think those people could be going and what makes you think that?
- What decision would you make and what thoughts led to that decision?
- How do you think the kids on the corner are feeling? What makes you think that way?
Questions to Understand These Differences:
- What worldview might shape their values and decisions?
- What pains or expectations could explain their responses?
- What beliefs may be guiding the behaviors we see?
- How could someone else see the situation like or unlike we do?
Sameness isn’t a prerequisite for relationships. In fact, God delights in our diversity. When parents help children identify and understand our family differences and differences around us, we create more realistic expectations for life. We equip children to accept people different than them. In so doing, we create more compassionate expectations for life. As we dialog about beliefs, burdens, and behaviors contrasting our own, we learn to use God’s truth and His attitude to consider life in our diverse world. Empathy prepares the way for a lifetime of family connection.
3. Empathy Is Essential Connecting to Each Other
Get real and vulnerable in your relationships.
With intentional effort to make empathy part of parenting, home becomes a safer place to know others and be known. We share things in common, consider other perspectives, and listen to learn with vulnerability. Uncovering contrasting viewpoints and feelings doesn’t have to lead to conflict. As we open our thoughts, experiences, and emotions to each other in the safe spaces of family, the honesty we practice creates getter bonds between us.
Moms and dads set the precedent for sharing what family members have in common. From a marriage intertwined with transparency, children connect with openness to their parents and to each other. Transparent sharing helps children learn to relate to each other in personal ways. They develop an appreciation for the different ways God designed each of us. To call attention to what we share in common, ask questions.
Questions to Connect despite differences:
- In what ways are we similar?
- In what ways are we different?
- How do our commonalities reflect God’s design of people?
- How do you think God is responding to our differences?
Being in the same family doesn’t mean we’re the same. Parents and children need to intentionally learn and apply skills for connection to care about other family members. This requires listening to and learning from one another. We aren’t just listening for information, but for insight to help us be present in the hard things of each other’s lives and suffering. By nurturing deep connection in close relationships, sinful and self-centered behaviors like bullying or manipulation decrease and give way to serving and tenderness.
Responses for Vulnerable Sharing:
When we hear vulnerable thoughts, we can respond in these ways.
- Ask for more understanding
- Remain present with the hurting person
- Pray for God’s guidance and shared peace
- Extend genuine willingness to be part of the support and solution
From an empathetic heart posture, we step into the place of another person, commit to understand their perspective, and use that insight to discern loving actions. We don’t fix each other, but listen to, care about, and understand each other.
Empathetic families invest in identifying with others. We start with those inside our family and move outward. In order to understand another person’s world in a meaningful way, we’re willing to inconvenience ourselves. What we learn about others changes how we look at and function in the world. Instead of staying in our comfortable, familiar, family space, families exercising empathy move out together in experiences.
Experiences for Gaining Understanding
– Choose different experiences in different places (restaurant, park, etc.)
– Take varied forms of transportation; walk instead of riding.
– Play a sport/game a family member likes instead of your own.
– Visit other homes and use yours to invite people in.
– Cook for each other or for others outside your family.
– Listen to a family member’s music or watch the show someone else likes.
– Intentionally experience what others do by serving others together.
– Ask for help from each other or from neighbors or even strangers.
– Borrow items you need instead of always providing for your own, new item.
Learn about an issue or charity someone else cares about and volunteer with them.
The age of separate bedrooms, brand new backpacks, and private car lines has moved us and our children further away from naturally engaging in empathetic experiences. Resist the urge to make your own way and get all your own things. Instead, receive the help of an empathetic friend. As you receive the cup of sugar, the ride to church, the used snow boots, the night on the couch, or the spare bedroom, receive the greater gift of living in someone else’s space and the expanded understanding that comes with it.
Parents find it harder to understand their children when they don’t practice empathetic parenting. Children find it harder to think outside of their own experience if they never stepped outside of our own experience. Built on mutual understanding, empathy commits to sharing, understanding, and relating to the beliefs and experiences each person cherishes most. When parents purpose to understand the perspectives of others, beginning with their children, patience and wisdom result. For the parents and for the children.
Empathy is a navigational practice for parenting unique children through their own growth course. It invites each family member to find out first-hand that the desire to be caring contributors in each other’s lives in genuine. Family doesn’t just like one other, we know and love one other. When parents model an empathetic commitment to know each other, accept each other, and connect to each other, we create a foundation for strong relationships to last a lifetime.
Photo Credit: ©Pexels/August de Richelieu
Julie Sanders loves helping women find God’s peace in today’s challenging times. She is the author of Expectant, The ABCs of Praying for Students, and the creator of How to Prayer Walk for Your School. She and her husband call Central Oregon home, but serve leaders globally and cross-culturally. Julie can be found at juliesanders.org.