Tag Archives: empathy

The Quick Fix

A few weeks ago, I was visiting a classroom of toddlers who ranged in age from nineteen or twenty months old to nearly three. When I walked through the door, the first thing I noticed was one child in distress, who appeared to have been crying for some time. She was pacing. I sat down nearby and began to observe what was happening through a wider lens. Most of the children in the room were engaged in various play activities — some in the play kitchen, some rolling cars and trucks across a carpeted area, and some reading books with a caregiver. The crying child was without an adult nearby, but was seeming to seek another caregiver who was engaged in changing a diaper. She was not entirely without support, however. Hovering nearby was another child, older than her by about six months. Every so often, the older child would put a hand on the crying child’s arm. The crying child shook it off, turning away, but the older child persisted, peering into the crying child’s face. As I watched, the older child tried again to touch the crying child and the crying child again shook her away. I decided to verbalize my observations.

“You saw how upset H was,” I said to the older child. “It looks like you wanted to help her, but I think she was letting you know she didn’t want to be touched right now.”

The crying child paused in her hectic movements and looked at me. I looked back and observed, “You’re really upset, H.” She moved closer to me.

“She’s crying,” the older child stated. “She’s sad.”

“Are you sad?” I asked H. She climbed into my lap. The older child again moved to lay her hand on H’s arm and H turned to her with a sharp, warning look on her face, again vocalizing her distress.

The caregiver who was changing a diaper called out to the older child, “L! Stop it! Keep your hands on you!” She then added, to me, “My friend L is having a hard time keeping her hands to herself.”

I blinked and looked at L as she blinked and looked at me. She wrung her hands silently.

I spoke quietly to L again, “I see that you were trying to help H. You saw that she was sad. Does it help you when someone strokes your arm when you feel sad?” I paused a moment, then stroked her arm gently. From the safety of my lap, H quietly watched, her crying calmed. L nodded and said, “H was crying.”

“She was crying,” I agreed. “Do you think you could ask H if you could help her?” Both children looked at me silently, seeming to contemplate the meaning. I expounded, “We can ask before we touch someone. Can I touch your arm, L?” L looked down at her arm, then held it out to me. I stroked it again and smiled. She smiled back.

The caregiver who had been engaged in a diaper change emerged from behind the changing counter. “L,” she said, “Walk away and find a job.”

L wandered to another part of the room by herself and stood watching some other children play. I sat with H in my lap and simply observed for a period of time. After a little while, H got up from my lap and went to join some other children playing with baby dolls, her upset now behind her. I saw L keeping an eye on her from a distance and I thought I saw something in her face, in the way she watched H, that indicated Future Caregiver.

I did not record this observation in an attempt to indict the caregiver who suggested L set aside her empathetic instincts. My observations were a snapshot, a snippet of the day this caregiver devotes to both L and H. My intention is simply to share an example of how we might interact slightly differently with young children. I believe this caregiver truthfully interpreted L’s hand on H as an issue that needed to be stopped, nipped in the bud, so to speak. The quick fix was to have L “walk away” from H and perhaps then (imagine I had not been there, as would normally be the case) help H to communicate or calm her upset.

I asked the caregiver about H’s upset. I wondered if it seemed to be related to L. It turned out that she had begun crying when her parent had left and had not been able to “calm down” since. I asked about L’s response to H’s distress. I learned that L had been hovering nearby, as I had observed, for some time and that H seemed more distressed each time L moved in close.

“It seems like L has a lot of empathy for H,” I said.

“She likes to be in the middle of things,” the caregiver expressed ruefully.

Hmm.

Caregivers (I include myself) come to their role with preconceptions and emotional baggage that they sometimes don’t recognize the weight of (it’s like those suitcases on wheels — you can just roll along all day without working too hard, but then a wheel begins to wobble and you realize it’s too much to carry). It can cloud their relationships with the children in their care.

I was reminded of a section from Deborah Carlisle Solomon’s book, regarding observation, featuring a quote from RIE Associate Elizabeth Memel.

“Observation is an art form. It’s not something that most people can do easily, but when they’re encouraged to do it, they learn to let go and enjoy it. Parents can begin to relax and see what their child is becoming instead of thinking they need to be the cause of, or catalyst for, their child’s development.”

Observation is one of the most crucial things for early care professionals to develop a knack for. Without it, they are forced to fall back on assumptions, misconceptions, and quick fixes. Observation of children, when undertaken with care, helps to remove the lens of bias and frees the adult to see who children are through what children do.

In the article Wondering With Children: The Importance of Observation in Early Education, George Forman and Ellen Hall write, “As we observe children, we need to consider their goals. What effects are they trying to create? We observe their actions and listen to their comments to determine the strategies they choose to attain those goals. The relation between the strategy and the goal will reveal a possible theory, a theory about how to make the desired effect occur. The theory, correct or incorrect in an objective sense, makes the child’s choice of strategy sensible. The theory comes from us. It is our speculation. It is our attempt to find an entry into the child’s world. All high-level conversations begin with someone speculating about the meaning of the other person’s words or actions.”

Let’s step back again and consider L’s “goals” as she hovered near H. Each time she reached out and touched H and H reacted negatively, L quickly removed her hand. She frequently attempted to study H’s face. She articulated her observation of H’s feelings by saying, “She’s sad.” I theorize this is not a child (L) who needs to be instructed to tamp down her instinct towards empathy, but a child who may need support in learning how to appropriately channel her empathy.

When we reach for the “quick fix” and have children “walk away”, we miss a true learning opportunity for everyone involved.

I want to say again that I’m not writing this down as an indictment of this caregiver. We’ve all used a quick fix before, in many different situations. For example, a few weeks ago I went through a period of intense insomnia. I was crawling through my work days on very few hours of sleep (increasing exponentially my compassion for sleep-deprived new parents!). In the mornings, my jumpstart was coffee. That’s a quick fix. It doesn’t address the underlying issue. It was the best I could do at the time. And if you think this example is something that impacted only myself, understand that I’m responsible for the care of many other human beings throughout the day and I ultimately need to be at my best or we all come out the worse for the wear. I imagine this was only the first of several quick fixes I fell back on during those days.

In one of my university classes, a professor spoke to my class at length regarding Goodness of Fit. Her voice rings on in my head, years later. I understand now, more than ever, why she lingered so on the topic. It’s so important. She emphasized that sometimes there is not that goodness of fit and it is the responsibility of the adult to recognize and adapt for the sake of the child.

Have you ever reflected on this as a caregiver? I think we all should.

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When It’s Time to Go

The parent of a toddler arrives at the childcare center where I work, ready to pick up their child and take them home. The toddler sees the parent through the window and shrieks with delight, then playfully runs to “hide” in the spot where they “hide” each day, gleefully awaiting the moment when their parent will scoop them up and hug them. Unfortunately, today the parent is not in the mood to participate in this routine game. They’re running behind schedule and must rush out the door to pick up another child. Perhaps they have had a long, difficult day and their mind is preoccupied with stress.

“Time to go!” they call to the child from the door. The child giggles and burrows deeper into her “hiding” spot, anticipating the playful sense of connection that she believes is coming.

“Let’s go,” the parent repeats in irritation. “We don’t have time to play.” The child peers out of her hiding spot, then dives back down, hiding her face.

“Okay, I’m going,” the parent says. “Buh-bye! I’m leaving!” She opens the door and pauses, waiting for the child’s reaction.

This is the pivotal moment. Every day, a similar scene plays out at schools, parks, and play dates. Time stands still for a brief moment during this face-off between parent and child — who will win control of how events unfold?

In reality, we all know, no one wins because no one feels good in this situation.

As adults, we have our adult agenda in mind at almost all times. We are often heard to lament the fact that there are a limited number of hours in the day. There are jobs to be done, errands to be completed, appointments to make and meet, meals to be made, laundry to do, and through it all the clock ticks on and on. There are times when we observe a young child issuing an invitation to join them in their world and we consciously choose to keep pace with our adult agenda instead. There are times when we feel we simply must.

Our children internalize so many unspoken lessons in these moments. If we are not conscious and careful, they sometimes internalize the message that their own agenda does not matter. They can interpret this message to read, “YOU don’t matter.”


In the past few years, psychology researchers have found a good deal of literal truth embedded in the metaphorical phrases comparing love to pain. Neuroimaging studies have shown that brain regions involved in processing physical pain overlap considerably with those tied to social anguish. The connection is so strong that traditional bodily painkillers seem capable of relieving our emotional wounds. Love may actually hurt, like hurt hurt, after all. [Source: “Why Love Literally Hurts”]

It can be difficult (sometimes, seemingly impossible) to reconcile what we know about children’s behavior and how to respond to said behavior in textbook fashion with what we’re feeling about children’s behavior within the context of our complex and layered lives. Because, come on, when we feel like it’s time to go, it’s time to go, full stop. On the inside we’re screaming that we don’t have time for this!

Parents and caregivers frequently list as a goal for children that they “listen.” By “listen”, they often mean, “comply.” We want children to follow our directions (and to keep pace with our agenda) for a multitude of reasons. Janet Lansbury shares five of the most common reasons that young children won’t do as we ask. She writes, “Children are ready to listen, primed from birth to begin decoding our words and intuiting our unspoken messages. They are also unique individuals who quickly develop ideas, opinions and wills of their own. Babies and toddlers often understand exactly what we want but choose to do the opposite.”

Establishing a relationship of mutual respect is, in my opinion, the best way to foster the sense of connection (and love) that will lead to smoother transitions for yourself and your child. Understand that your child is an individual with plans, needs, and a schedule of their own. Your child is a whole person. Whatever they may be engaged in at any given time matters to them. (Think about how you feel when interrupted or cut off or dismissed.)

In the scenario that I describe above, the toddler is seeking connection with their parent. They’re anticipating a joyful mutual physical expression of love in a reunion routine they have previously engaged in. On another day when the parent was hurried, they visibly shook off their own preoccupations to respond to the glint in the child’s eye and, rather than opening the door and calling out the empty threat of departure, they crouched down by the door and opened their arms to the child. The child immediately ran from their hiding spot, the parent scooped them up, and off they went to the car, both smiling.

If you find yourself teetering on the edge of engaging in a battle of wills with your young child over departures, some advice:

  • Communicate in advance. With young children, this conversation will need to be frequent and consistent. “When it’s almost time to go, I will give you a warning. You can finish what you’re doing and then we’ll go to the car together.” Give your child the advance warning, “In three minutes, we will go to the car.” When you consistently employ this strategy, your child knows you’re not bluffing. They may still show resistance, but they know what is going to happen. It may seem that your child is too young to comprehend this kind of communication, but in my experience children respond very quickly when it is used with consistency as they’re experts at internalizing these cues and routines.
  • Provide choices within the limits of the necessary departure. “We are going to go to the car now. Should we hop or skip to the car? Do you want to walk or be carried? Do you want to carry your bear or your bag?”
  • Stay connected. Remember that you’re in this together — it’s not, “I’m leaving now!” it’s, “We’re going to leave now.” Look your child in the eye. Connect physically with your child. Extend your heart to your child — when you consciously release your struggle and strain, you’ll find that you’re joyfully met.
  • Use empathy: “I see how much you love to slide! It’s so hard to stop having fun here. We can come back again tomorrow and slide some more.” Do not dismiss or ignore what your child is doing or feeling.
  • Communicate about what is going to happen. Explain where you’re going, how you’re getting there, and what will happen next. You will find that when they know what’s ahead, many children will quickly shift from resistance to engagement.
  • Be consistent and predictable.

You may be interested in further reading on related topics:
Reunion Meltdowns
Easing a Toddler’s Daily Transitions
Little Kids and the Power of the Five Minute Warning

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It Makes Me Sad

I encountered a flustered mom on the sidewalk outside my work building the other day. She was a mom that I knew by sight, not by name. For several months she and her son had been attending the parent-and-me class that takes place in the classroom next-door to mine a few times a week. Recently, she had made the decision to enroll her son in a preschool class that he would attend on his own for a few hours per day.

When I encountered her on the sidewalk, it was after one of her son’s first days in the preschool class. It was nearing lunchtime. Her little boy was refusing to get into the car to go home. Instead, he stood in the middle of the sidewalk, wailing, while the mom cajoled, threatened, and bribed in rapid succession to attempt to hurry him along. She was visibly flustered and frustrated, as nearly anyone would have been in her shoes. It is a unique test of one’s patience to stand in public alongside a wailing child. Even when you seem to be completely alone, you feel the sting and burn of a thousand eyes on you.

The mom glanced my way as I approached and, her patience at its limit, grabbed the little boy by one arm and hissed, “It makes me so sad when you don’t listen to my words!” The boy screamed as she finally lifted him up and put him inside the car.

I passed by and walked into the building to begin my work day, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the scene. I still can’t. And here’s why: this mom is a shining example of someone who is trying to do all the “right” things. She is really trying to use the “right” words with her child in a difficult situation. She once worked in a preschool setting herself, I had learned. I would have guessed at it, had I not been told. Because somewhere in the history of preschool training, parents and teachers began to use the phrase, “It makes me sad when you…” in an attempt to dissuade children from behaving in ways that make the parent or teacher feel a number of emotions that may or may not include genuine sadness. (Does it matter how the child is feeling?)

When the mom on the sidewalk glanced my way, I wanted to communicate somehow with my body language or facial expression or even with words that I was not judging her. I wasn’t. If anything, I felt empathy for her situation. Have you been there? I have. I’ve wrestled a reluctant toddler into a carseat more than once. It’s not fun for anyone involved. (Think how the toddler feels!)

I looked at the mom’s face as she hissed angrily at her little boy. His eyes widened as he looked into hers. Her mouth told him, “so sad,” but her face told an entirely different story, as plain as day. I wish she had told him what she was feeling. Why not? He was doing his very best to express his honest, raw emotions to her. (What was he feeling?)

In that long, uncomfortable moment on the sidewalk, the goal of this mom was most likely (we can presume) to get her child into the car so they could head home for lunch and a much-deserved nap. Thinking long-term, I like to imagine that the goal of this mom, who uses phrases like, “It makes me so sad when you don’t listen to my words,” is to raise an emotionally mature and connected individual. This is a mom, I imagine, who doesn’t want to snap and yell and berate her child. This is a conscious, caring woman who has read something about child development. She is someone like you, perhaps, and someone like me.

We know by now how incredibly valuable empathy is. It’s important to empathize with your child. Empathy is a package of abilities in the brain, shaped by experiences. The way I think about it, each time you meet a child with empathy, you’re helping to wire their brain for future success. Plant this seed in your own mind and you could quadruple your patience in trying times like the one described above.

I don’t believe you can be empathetic or teach empathy to a child without honesty. What does that mean in a real-life situation like this? It means that you don’t tell your child that their actions make you sad when what you’re really feeling is frustrated. You’re feeling angry and embarrassed. You’re feeling tired. (Of course you are!) Even if your child doesn’t have the words for these emotions, they know them. They know them in themselves and they see them in you. When you grab their arm and hiss about feeling sad, they probably don’t even hear your words but you know they see through you.

Being honest doesn’t mean joining them in their tantrum and screaming out your frustration too. It might mean crouching down in front of them, meeting their eyes with your own, and saying, “It sounds like you don’t want to stop playing and get in the car. It sounds like you’re really mad right now. I’m frustrated too. Your choices right now are to climb into your seat or to have me help you. Will you climb in or do I need to pick you up?” If you need to pick them up, you can tell them, “I hear you. I know you don’t want to fasten your buckles right now. You’re feeling really upset that we have to go. I’m upset too, but this is something that we have to do right now.”

Later, when your child has calmed down, you could talk more about leaving preschool and getting into the car. You might have to talk about it often over the next few weeks. Your child might tell you that it makes them upset when they have to stop playing. You might tell your child that it makes you upset when they scream on the sidewalk. It’s okay to tell your child that their actions make you feel whatever it is that they make you feel: angry, scared, frustrated, overwhelmed, even sad. What’s even more important, however, is to show and tell your child that you notice and care about what their actions express about their own feelings in that moment.

You may also be interested in the post Reunion Meltdowns.

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The Forced Apology

Were you ever forced to apologize to someone as a child? If you were, you may be able to recall the mix of negative emotions flooding through your body at the time. Perhaps you were still angry about whatever had previously transpired; perhaps you were feeling a bit resentful of how things were being handled; perhaps you were a bit embarrassed by the whole situation; perhaps there was a little bit of a guilt, deep inside, and somewhere nearby perhaps some true apologetic feelings lurked, not quite ready to swim to the surface. Then came the forced apology — more than likely given in a mumble and devoid of eye contact — before all parties walked away, no one feeling a sense of closure. Nearly everyone I know can relate to this experience as a child. And yet, as adults, we continue to force apologies from children in the face of our own frustration, embarrassment, or sense of duty.

The other day I observed a teacher extracting an apology from a three-year-old child. The child hadn’t been “a good listener,” and so was sitting to one side of the play yard with a teacher as she talked about the importance of listening well. She talked for awhile and the child fidgeted on the bench beside her for awhile and then she asked, “Are you ready to say ‘sorry’?” The child perked up right away. “Sorry!” he eagerly chirped, sliding forward on the bench, preparing to launch himself back into play. “I forgive you,” the teacher said with a smile, and both parties left the bench.

I don’t know this child and I don’t know what happened from there for the rest of his day. I can speculate, however, that he wasn’t feeling terribly apologetic for not listening (incidentally, it doesn’t seem to be the listening that was the real issue, but the following of directions). It seemed clear to me that his pat apology was issued with confidence, so somewhere along the way he had already learned that, “Sorry!” was an effective way to extract oneself from these situations. And he’s only three! I feel we have enough evidence from this alone to declare this child not only a Good Listener but also an absolutely terrific observer. As for what the teacher took away from this experience, it’s hard to say, but she did seem to be satisfied by what had transpired, so I imagine that this was a case of a teacher going through the motions. Have you ever been on the receiving end of a forced apology? It’s generally not a very satisfying place to be.

What is the goal with forced apologies? In some cases, it’s an almost reflexive end to what one perceives as a teaching moment, as seen above — the teacher wished for the child to feel regretful about not being a better “listener” and tried to prompt those feelings (and, one presumes, the resultant listening) with a forced apology. In other cases, it’s more guilt or embarrassment-driven, as when one child has hurt another or conflict of some kind has arisen. We force children to apologize when we feel an apology is called for. That’s not wrong. We want children to get along in society with “please”s and “thank you”s and “excuse me”s and apologies too, when apologies are necessary. And how will they learn unless we teach them? That’s our job, as parents, as teachers, as caregivers. But I would like to suggest that we teach them not through telling them, not through forcing them, but through demonstrating true empathy and by modeling active conflict resolution skills.

Awake Parent Perspectives writes about how forcing children to apologize undermines real conflict resolution:

[W]hen we ask children to apologize prematurely we are actually devaluing the process of working through conflict. We’re sending the message that we ought to just quickly apologize, even if we don’t feel sorry as a way to smooth over the incident. We’re also inadvertently teaching kids that conflicts should be avoided, rather than used as an opportunity to connect further and get to know each other better.

Conflict can be intensely uncomfortable. It’s unpredictable, it doesn’t feel safe, and often we adults have spent most of our lives trying to avoid it (by doing things like saying, “I’m sorry!” almost instinctively). Learning the skills to use in navigating conflict makes it much easier and more effective, if not more comfortable. Young children can really find their voices and their confidence through learning conflict resolution skills and these are skills they will carry with them for a lifetime. In the preschool environments that prioritize conflict resolution and the development of pro-social skills, it’s awesome to hear the children using the language and skills they have soaked up from their teachers.

A good place to start with young children (as young as older infants or young toddlers) is to look at what’s happened and simply narrate and explain it. An example might be when one child has pulled the hair of another and the one who has had their hair pulled is crying. “You’re upset that your hair got pulled!” you might observe, “That really hurt your head.” You might offer additional comfort to the crying child, if needed, and observe to the other, “It hurts when you pull hair. This child doesn’t like to have their hair pulled.” When I’m working with infants and toddlers, I tell the child who has been hurt, “You can tell them you don’t like that. You can tell them it hurts.” Depending on their age and developmental abilities, I might show them the sign for “hurt” or the sign for “stop”, I will model talking directly to the child who did the hurting, and I will repeat, “You didn’t like that. They didn’t like that.” I will model “gentle” hands by touching both children gently and signing “gentle”. A positive replacement for prompting an apology might be to ask, “How can we help?” Young preschool children will have dozens of great ideas for how to help their friends and sometimes their ideas even circle back to, “I could say I’m sorry,” or, “They could tell me sorry.” True, heartfelt apologies are a wonderful balm for hurts.

I use the words, “I’m sorry,” when I feel bad about something that has transpired. Not to assume responsibility, but to express empathy. For example, to a child who has had their hair pulled, I’ll often say, “I’m sorry that happened to you. That hurt you.” I am sorry it happened. If you find yourself feeling sorry for a child who has been hurt by your child, I think it’s great to express that. You don’t have to force an unwilling child to apologize when there is no meaning behind it, but you set an example of empathy when you tell a hurt child, “I’m sorry that happened to you,” and you ask the child who did the hurting, “I wonder how we could help them to feel better?” When you truly model kindness and empathy, you will begin to observe that the forced apology has no place because children are handling their conflicts and reflecting those values.

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