Being There for our Children and for
|by Tamara Parnay
Children are great imitators of others' behavior. When they are
surrounded by people who love them and respond to them
respectfully and with empathy, they respond this way to others
too. Now, what if I am lovingly responsive to my children's needs,
but I don't extend this caring manner to others outside my family?
I can't help but wonder how this impacts on my children.
I'm not a die-hard Star Trek fan but there is an episode that
left a big impression on me: "The Empath." As a child I
was mesmerized by this being who could feel and absorb other
peoples' pain. I remember her big, emotion-filled, empathic eyes
and felt she would be able to curl herself up around me and listen
to me, make me feel loved, and draw from me all my childhood
Defining and Describing Empathy
Generally healthy and adjusted people are capable of
demonstrating empathy. Empathic individuals I know will stop what
they are doing, take off their sunglasses, and sit down so they
can fully focus on the person with whom they are communicating.
They have the capacity to sense what others are thinking and
feeling, and in this way they gain insight into their underlying
needs. Furthermore, they are able to verbalize, or mirror back,
other people's feelings so that they feel understood. In
responding empathically, they are able to keep their own emotional
world separate from that of others; they do not "lose"
themselves emotionally in others' problems. We gravitate to these
individuals because of their ability to relate well
interpersonally; we feel understood by them. They are good friends
to have around.
The empathic people I know feel enriched when surrounded by
those who hold different viewpoints and come from different
backgrounds. They value other people's experiences; accept others
for who they are; and they cherish diversity. They reach out to
others in an attempt to connect. They seek communion. They look
for compromise. They seek common ground. They strive to identify
with others by giving them the benefit of the doubt, by being
flexible, open-minded, and by looking for ways to validate their
views. They listen well, listen a lot, and speak a lot less.
Furthermore, these perceptive people seem to have the ability
to see themselves through the eyes of others. This enables
them to be self-aware (not self-conscious) and therefore cognizant
of how their words and actions impact on others. They can even
take this a step further so as to view a situation from a
"third place" outside themselves and others. This
additional perspective aids in minimizing conflicts and
misunderstandings. Of course, if they have inadvertently hurt
someone's feelings, they are able to proffer an apology free of
I aspire to be more like these "empaths" in my
interactions with others, and especially in my role as a parent.
|Empathic parenting involves all of the above. To maintain a
close bond with my children, it is essential for me to focus on
being lovingly responsive in my interactions with them. I want to
relate well with them, sense what they are feeling, help them put
their thoughts and feelings into words, and anticipate their
reactions as well as their needs. I want to stop, get down to
their level, look lovingly in their eyes, and give them my full
attention. I need to listen, listen, listen, help them to feel
understood, and accept them for the unique individuals they are. I
must keep my own emotional world separate from theirs. I have to
be flexible and willing to adjust my language, thoughts, and
actions, and to admit my mistakes. I need to be able to step back
and reflect on the events of the day, acknowledge the ways in
which I offered my children unconditional support and love, and
consider ways I might be able to maintain connection with greater
ease. My children rely on my ability to connect―and to
re-connect―with them. They instinctively know that their
coping abilities, and even their survival, depend on a strong
connection with me.
||My children are
|I am in awe of the great responsibility I have taken
on by bringing children into this world. How can I fulfill my
children's needs in a way that will set them on a path towards
becoming confident, loving, empathic adults?
Well, in all honesty, I'm not sure of the answer to this
question, but I'm guessing it has to do with my being a confident,
loving, empathic parent! What I do know for certain is that my
children are there to help me. My daughter can tell when my mind
is elsewhere. To get my attention, she tells me to "Talk to
me Mama, talk to me." What she means is, "Mama,
slow down. Listen to me. Engage yourself in what I'm saying.
Verbally mirror back what I'm telling you so I know you understand
My children are my teachers. I learn so much from them about
life and living in the present, about love, about myself. They
have awakened mighty feelings of unconditional love within me. It
is a type of love I once thought I was incapable of giving or
receiving. Children are naturally loving and quick to forgive and
move on. They learn to put conditions on their love only if they
are loved conditionally.
Empathy in Action
Whether my children are excited or joyful, sad or angry,
fearful or apprehensive, bored or glum, I want to be in tune with
and welcoming of their feelings. This is not always easy for me.
I've been raised in a society that labels feelings as either
"positive" and "negative." I've been taught to
value the so-called positive feelings and reject the so-called
negative ones. I see no reason for this dichotomy, so I have
decided mentally to put all feelings into one "box"
The problem I'm faced with is that I haven't had much
experience working with those feelings I was told to reject in
myself and in others. I'm consciously thinking about ways I can
support my children, no matter what they are feeling. Of course
it's not that I would avoid responding to my children with
anything they don't want to hear, for fear of arousing certain
feelings. There are times I need to draw the line on a particular
action or behavior, re-direct my children's focus, turn down a
request, make a suggestion, etc. Yes, sometimes I do upset my
children with what I have to say. It's how I go about this that
matters. Here is a procedure, the "3 E's," for gently
and empathically supporting my children, in these scenarios: My
child (1) throws a toy (2) wants to visit a friend, but it's too
late (3) wants to have another cookie just before dinner is
- Encourage a solution: If possible, without actually
coming out and telling my child she can't do these things, I
prompt her to come up with an acceptable solution on her own,
which tends to be more effective than my coming up with it:
"Since you cannot throw your toy, what could we throw?
And where could we go to throw it?" "Since it's
getting late, can you think of another time that you could see
your friend?" "I put the cookies away because dinner
will be served in a couple of minutes. If you're very hungry,
can you think of something healthier you could snack on before
- Empathize with my child's feelings: If my child gets
upset, I accept and validate her feelings of anger, sadness,
frustration and let her know I understand how she feels by
putting her feelings into words: "I'm guessing you're
feeling very [angry, sad, disappointed]. It's frustrating when
you can't do what you want to do / have what you want to
- Explain my feelings and reasons: It is important for
my child to know why I feel the way I do, and I try to offer
her ways to relate to her internal needs: "When you throw
heavy toys like that inside the house, I feel afraid that
someone might get hurt. You and I need to feel safe in our
house." "I feel worried there won't be enough time
for you to play with your friend before you need to go to bed.
Your body and mind need a good night's sleep." "I
feel concerned that you won't be hungry for the dinner we're
going to have soon. Your body needs a variety of healthy
Children need guidance given gently and without blame or
threats of punishment. Being empathic does not mean that I must
always keep my children from experiencing difficult emotions, but
it does mean that I will support them in experiencing the
wide range of emotions children, and all humans, are meant to
feel. It also means that I will be flexible and consider the
unique circumstances of each situation as it arises: While I
wouldn't let my child throw something that could injure someone,
if she is old enough to understand the importance of healthy
eating, I would offer my opinion but leave the decision up to her
about whether or not to eat that extra cookie.
To return to the Star Trek theme, I like to think of each of us
as a sun (or star!) around which revolve planets in various orbits
that represent everyone we come in contact with. In the orbit
closest to us revolve our nuclear family. Beyond that the extended
family and/or closest friends circle round us. Beyond them revolve
our friends. Farther out are our acquaintances. At the greatest
distance orbit strangers. As the orbital paths grow in size, so do
the number of people inhabiting them. Of course we would expend
much more of our empathic energy in interactions with those
closest to us, though there are times we connect with perfect
strangers in powerful empathic encounters.
Young babies know only a select few individuals, most often
their mother, father and siblings, maybe too a few extended family
members. The younger our children are, the more family-focused
they will likely be. As people can be self-absorbed as
individuals, so can they be "family-absorbed" which, to
a certain degree, is healthy. At some point after we have
cultivated a secure base for our children, we need to begin to let
go, little by little, as our children seek to move out to
encounter the world and what it has to offer. We need to be
sensitive to their cues, wait till they're ready, and let them go
off and explore. Meanwhile, we watch and wait and are ready for
them with open arms when they return. We intervene if they are in
danger of being seriously hurt, physically or emotionally. As our
children start exploring and accompanying us beyond their
immediate world, they begin to interact with people outside the
family unit - extended family, close friends, acquaintances, and
sometimes strangers. Their awareness of how we interact
with others also develops.
Even a very young child can pick up on the vibes, positive or
negative, that we send out to others. Thus, empathic parenting
means more than focusing on the needs of my own immediate family.
It requires me to keep the inner world of my family in perspective
with the world outside our little nucleus. I see myself as
everything to my children, yet as just one star in the galaxy of
humanity. My children need to notice me modeling empathy towards
others, even strangers; otherwise, I would be offering them a
confusing double standard. But perhaps more significant, in acting
with empathy towards others, I'm meeting my own needs for
community and mutual respect. My children may be at the center of
my life, but they are not the center of the universe. We all have
our place in this world and no one person is the sun that everyone
else revolves around. A piece of the picture is missing when I
fail to demonstrate empathy towards others outside my family.
When I'm fully in touch with my need for authenticity, and in
tune with the interconnectedness of all things, I naturally wish
to extend a certain degree of empathy towards anyone with
whom I cross paths. Following are some examples of where I might
do this. All of these situations involve giving others the benefit
of the doubt:
When another child hurts my child: Even
children brought up by gentle loving parents sometimes hit,
shove, or bite. Often they do so when they are at the age when
they are asserting their drive for independence and don't yet
have the verbal skills to properly express themselves, so
instead they use their limbs or teeth. When it is my own child
who has been hurt, it is easy for me to become angry towards the
other child and her parent. At the very moment my anger
surfaces, I accept it by saying to myself, "Oh, I notice
I'm feeling angry." I take a deep breath, and let it
subside, rather than acting on it. I might then notice the
feeling(s) underlying my anger; in this case, that I'm feeling
fearful for the safety of my child. And then I can turn this
into an opportunity to reach out to everyone involved. Maybe the
parent of the hurtful child is dealing with some stressful
issues at home which are having an impact on the child? Maybe my
own child did something to provoke the other child?! I certainly
need not take the situation personally. Instead, I can show
empathy not only towards my own child, but also towards the
other child and her parent.
When my child's behavior is negatively affecting others:
It is important to think not only of my child's feelings and
needs, but also of how my child's behavior impacts on the
feelings and needs of others. For example, when my child is
dawdling, causing others to wait, she simply may have to be
helped along to speed up the process of getting ready. This very
occasionally might entail gently moving her against her wishes.
I can use this difficult moment as an opportunity to reconnect
with my child by empathizing with her, accepting her negative
feelings and helping her express them. Then I can follow up with
an age-appropriate explanation of why I had to take action. In
doing so, I help her become aware of what other people are
experiencing and how her actions might be affecting them.
When my child and I witness a parent apparently
mistreating (screaming at or spanking) their child in public:
I will briefly talk with my child about the feelings of all
four parties: my child, myself, the parent, and the parent's
child. This conversation may need to happen there on the spot,
or later on, depending on the situation and my child's reaction.
I might start by telling my child how I feel: "Oh I'm so
sad to see the parent not being gentle with / hurting their
child. I also feel scared." This almost always prompts my
daughter to tell me how she feels. Otherwise I first ask my
child how she feels. Then I reassure my daughter that I would
not treat her that way or let others treat her that way. I then
mention the other child's feelings: "And that child must be
feeling very hurt, sad and scared right now." Or I might
ask my daughter how she thinks the child is feeling. Next, I
guess at what the other parent is feeling: "The mother must
be very tired and frustrated, and she has forgotten how to be
gentle with her child." Or I ask my daughter why she thinks
the mother is not being gentle. My daughter has come up with
some very creative reasons.
I like the idea of going over and talking with the mother (I
have more difficulty approaching fathers in situations like this)
and offering emotional and tangible support, first asking her if
she would like some help (e.g. with getting bags into her cart).
If I am not in the position to help, I at least try to say
something comforting to the mother, maybe along the lines of how
tiring and frustrating parenting can be. I must admit, though,
that I'm sometimes too shaken up by witnessing apparent
mistreatment of children to actually carry through with this step.
|If I'm feeling unsure about talking to the parent, I've found it
helpful just to move physically closer to the parent and child so
that I'm close enough for them to feel my presence. I take deep
breaths and try to think peaceful thoughts. I may or may not look
their way. I might try to offer a sympathetic look to the child
without the parent noticing. If the child senses that other adults
disapprove of the injustice of the abuse, the child might feel
empowered knowing that the mistreatment is unacceptable and not
something she deserves. On the other hand, I worry that if the
parent feels I am siding with the child without showing compassion
for her situation, she could end up blaming the child for what she
considered an embarrassing "confrontation" (no matter
how gently I approached her) and take it out on the child in
unfavorable ways in private. If I can find some way to side with
the parent, it may soften her a bit and perhaps she would feel
understood. Then, maybe, just maybe, she would be more inclined to
show a little more understanding to her child.
involves a good deal of listening.
|These types of situations can vary greatly in their
intensity and may be extremely upsetting to witness. Sometimes it
might be better to leave the scene immediately, especially if my
child is with me and the abuse is severe. Of course, my first
priority is my own child's well-being; and next, my own.
Furthermore, it is possible that no amount of kindness towards an
abusive parent will benefit the child. Often it's difficult to
gauge whether to confront or to help the parent, or to do some of
both; or whether it would be helpful to speak up for the child or
When someone says or does something rude to me:
This is a great opportunity to model an empathic response for my
children. Rather than becoming irate and hurling insults, I
quietly move away from the person and turn to my child and
whisper, "Wow! I think that person is very unhappy right
now. I wonder why? Maybe they've had a bad day at work?" I
am helping my child imagine what might be causing their anger,
without taking it personally. If necessary, I can always
"blow off steam" later on by relating the incident
privately to my partner or a friend.
In situations where I do need to stand up for myself:
This, too, can be done in a sensitive way. For example, if
someone cuts in ahead of me in line and we are in a hurry, I can
gently say to them, "I'm sorry, I don't think you saw me
standing here when you arrived. Normally I wouldn't say
anything, but I'm really pressed for time today, and my children
are getting impatient. I would like to return to my place behind
the person in front of you. Please excuse me." My children
see me handling the situation with strength and diplomacy.
The following two situations may not necessarily involve my
children, but could affect them, at least indirectly:
When someone criticizes my parenting: It is
important to me to interact with my children in ways that build,
rather than erode, our deep connection. However, in my efforts
to be the type of parent I want to be, sometimes it feels as
though I am swimming against society's current. I'm putting my
heart into raising my children so, when others criticize my
parenting, it can be very difficult to take. When I assume other
people are genuinely interested in the welfare of my child, I
tend not to take parenting criticism as personally as I would
otherwise. I can gracefully listen, nod and thank them. Maybe I
can even find a grain of truth in what they are saying and
acknowledge it. I remind myself I don't have to openly disagree
with them, and I certainly don't have to use their advice!
Furthermore, without communicating it, I can feel for people who
disapprove of aspects of my parenting because perhaps deep down
they are struggling with a wish that they had parented
differently, or that they had been parented in a different way
When others want to talk about parenting issues:
Many parents love sharing advice with each other. In doing so,
we meet our mutual needs for belonging, contribution, and
support. It is flattering to be asked to help but it is not
something to be taken lightly. Effective advice giving is an
art. Pam Leo in her book, Connection Parenting,
shared a lovely thought: "People don't care how much we
know until they know how much we care." Sometimes, I
realize in hindsight I was in such a hurry to provide solutions,
that I didn't fully consider what the other person was really
asking, nor had I obtained enough information – or listened
carefully enough - to understand where the person was
coming from. Here are some questions I need to ask myself when
I'm asked to give advice:
- Does the person really want advice? Or is she really
asking for support and empathy? Many times it is the latter.
Empathy is so often a beautiful starting point. Sometimes it
is all people need.
- Am I responding with humility? Or am I jumping at an
opportunity to impart my knowledge to someone who has made
herself vulnerable to me?
- Do I trust that the person knows what she is talking about
so I can then work with her and not against her? In other
words, am I trying to prove her wrong, or am I trying to
help her feel "right"?
- Do I accept that what the person is saying is
important to her even if it doesn't seem important to me? In
other words, am I validating or dismissing her concerns?
- Am I able to qualify my answers in order to avoid making
- Am I readily willing to admit when I don't have an answer,
and am I able to come up with other ways to find more
answers, including referring the person to someone else?
Providing advice sometimes necessitates many questions so that
I may succeed in giving advice that truly addresses the person's
needs. Contrary to what it may seem, giving advice involves a good
deal of listening.
When I am truly living empathically, I am sensitive to the
needs and feelings of others, even when my children aren't
there to witness my actions. In this way, I meet my own needs
for authenticity and ease. My children, like any children, are
very perceptive and pick up on false appearances; even if they
didn't actually observe an insensitive interaction of mine, they
will sense my lingering unease.
Last, but certainly not least, there is one more person I need
to consider in this empathy equation: myself. I want to be more
aware of my own feelings and underlying needs. I have more to
offer others when I've taken care of my own needs first. I can
start by meeting my need for self-acceptance: Yes, I am imperfect.
I cannot always be empathic towards my family and others. Some
days I am tired and impatient, and lack energy to be the kind of
parent I want to be. Sometimes I am curt and cross with my
children, husband, and others. I am not a perfect parent, nor
spouse, nor member of society, and I need not strive to be
perfect. I need only do my best at any given moment. If I can go
gentler on myself, then I can be gentler with others, and vice
versa. Moreover, like the Empath who expended too much energy and
nearly died trying to save a member of the Star Trek crew, I
cannot go around keenly feeling others' pain. I would go
mad doing so. In this I need to find a balance.
My needs for community, mutual respect, and self-respect lead
me to cultivate a village mentality that extends out from my own
heart, through my home, into my community, and beyond. My children
see how empathy can reach beyond our family nucleus. In being
empathic towards myself and others, in my own small way I can help
create and spread peace and harmony in our world.
|© Tamara Parnay.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Article adapted from a 2-part feature in API Journal (Fall 2006 and Winter 2007).
Tamara Parnay is the mother of two of our Earth family's children,
Nairie (b . 2002), and Ahri (b . 2004).