Revisiting Empathy

August 11th already? Time is truly flying! My nieces start school next week (kinder and 6th!), and my nephews started already middle and high, believe it or not!

You may have noticed I neglected to send a newsletter last week, and I do apologize…I was traveling to visit my grandmother…and family and friends…

My grandmother, aunt, mother and cousins, and good friend, Jude Rose (West Hill Educare)

And wifi wasn’t available. Somehow, I survived.

But I wanted to follow up on the email I sent two weeks ago…the one about tweens and teens? The article stemmed from the book Unselfie, and the sister book, Thrivers – which I used to get a lot of the details for the article. You see, I didn’t finish either of the books, and I likely won’t…for one, the books are geared toward parents of older children, and while they are interesting and may have some good thoughts for those parents, I really do think that RIE parents are on the right track, regardless.

She also didn’t seem to have any qualms in using infants as teaching objects for middle schoolers, which I really didn’t love…But another reason for my hesitation is that while I appreciate a lot of the broad strokes Borba included, and I loved her simple mantra that explains what I do when I’m sportscasting for empathy (Name the uncaring act, Frame the impact, Reclaim caring expectations), I don’t like her specifics. While I try to stick to observable facts, Borba leans into judgement. She suggests calling out unkind behavior as mean or insensitive, and using shaming “you made her sad”/I’m disappointed in your behavior because you are a caring person” (pp.84-85). To be fair, she does use a scientific journal to support this…but the article is over 27 years old, and more recent research emphasizes parental warmth for behavior change.

Telling someone that you are disappointed in their behavior because you know they are a caring person is actually saying there’s something wrong with you…you aren’t living up to your best self. This is not at all to say that you should overlook unkind behavior, but shaming is counter-productive. It makes us feel like lousy humans, and people who feel like lousy humans don’t often feel like they can make amends. You will see a bigger impact from slowing down and allowing children to feel shame’s counterpoint, guilt. Guilt is all about feeling responsibility for your actions, which is important.

For me, Name, Frame, Reclaim would look like this:

Name: Oh, you dumped Keri’s water out. I think she was planning to drink that!

Frame: I don’t think she liked that. She’s crying and she walked over to her Mommy for a hug.


Reclaim: I wonder what might make Keri feel better? [Pause] I think I’ll go get some more water for her. Do you want to come with me?

No need for shame!

Instead, I try* to stay neutral and just describe what is happening. Yes, I could say that Keri is sad because her water got dumped, but I don’t want to make a judgement about it…it is safer to stick to the observable facts. The biggest difference here is that I want to leave some space for children to see and feel the impact of their actions on another person. And give them a little time and space to figure out how to make amends. If they don’t, I’ll model it for them…even if modeling is simply offering empathy to the person who is upset. I don’t require children to make amends. Quite often, children want to be part of the solution…but if they don’t, it’s okay…they are still watching and learning from you.

*I say try because even when you are striving for neutrality, children know when they’ve done something you don’t like! The thing that helps me stay even-keeled most of the time is that I know that we are all doing the best we can at any given moment, and that goes for babies and toddlers, too!