I remember being a kid in vulnerable, difficult moments and, out of concern, my parents would reach out with empathy. I’d be struggling with a difficult situation and they’d offer an “I’ve been there” or “We’ve all been through that.” Yet I didn’t feel connected, I felt minimized. It’s another preconceived notion that empathy is an outright helpful, bonding effort, but those experiences made me realize that empathetic sentiments are not all they’re cracked up to be.
Fast-forward to one of my most heart-wrenching moments from my manny career. It was early in the school year, and Ryan had been placed in a class that intentionally mixed students behind the curriculum with “example” students, while his brother, Evan, was in a class with many familiar friends. Ryan was handpicked to be an “example” student since he was exceptional, both intellectually and socially. But that meant new teachers and new classmates and new discomforts.
On this particular evening, the boys’ parents went to a dinner for all the parents of kids in Ryan’s class. When they left, Ryan got very upset. I asked him if he wanted to sit and talk.
Through tears, he shared that he felt like an outsider since most of the students had been together the two previous years. He felt like he wasn’t making friends and that the teachers were tougher on him, furthering the feeling of exclusion.
I asked questions.
I never tried to be empathetic.
I’m not saying empathy is inherently evil. In fact, in this situation, I was feeling extraordinarily empathetic because I’d gone through a break-up the day before. I too was feeling intensely sad and isolated, albeit in a very different context. But I still never reached for empathy.
Empathy gets in the way. It is not the parent’s job to fix the child’s problems, though a parent may be inspired to do so if he’s overwhelmed by the child’s distress. In P.L.M., our goal is to equip our children with the skills to solve their own problems.
Coping with emotions is one of the most important skills our children can learn. Reacting on emotion alone is irrational, reacting without it is inhumane. Emotions should be felt, examined, and then processed in order to deal with issues. We want the child to practice that progression as much as possible.
So while Ryan shared, I simply listened, and when he came to the end of a thought, I’d ask a question to help us both understand what was going on. Once I had a grasp of the situation, I asked him, “Is there anyone in the class that you like and want to hang out with more?” From there, I asked if he had any ideas to make hanging out happen and the talking snowballed with fewer tears and more objectivity. We decided to text his parents at the dinner to see if they could connect with one boy’s parents to make playdates in the future.
Several minutes after our discussion ended, Ryan, unprovoked, called my name. I turned.
“Thanks for talking.”