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How to Engage our Children through Empathy

How to Engage our Children through Empathy

Have you ever tried to motivate your children only to feel as though you’re spinning your wheels and getting nowhere? Sometimes in our attempts to move them along to maturity, it can feel as though we’re missing them altogether.

Consider this: In order for gears to move something along, they must be engaged.

When we choose to engage with empathy, meeting our children where they are now, like a moving gear coming into contact with a stationary cog, we are able to move our children along more effectively to maturity as well.

I first saw this dynamic at work when my son was three. I was frustrated by his sour attitude upon waking up. It was like he woke angry at the world. To combat this, every morning I would shower him with cheerfulness. I wanted our home’s atmosphere to be one of joy, so I refused to let his morning mood set the tone. With my best, widest smile and most enthusiastic voice I’d greet him every day, “Good morning, Dutch!”

He’d scowl. I’d close my eyes and pray for patience.

This went on for a long time. I could modify his behavior effectively by forcing him to speak the obligatory words, “Good morning,” but nothing could remove his inner grumpy-gloom. My strategy, then, was to prove I could be more cheerful than he was grumpy. Overcome evil with good, right?

I would smile bigger. Make my voice lighter. Greet him more enthusiastically. By golly, I was going to be happy if it killed me, and then he’d catch on and do the same. Right?                 

Wrong. The happier I acted, the grumpier he got. Obviously, I was missing something.

It was empathy.

That one little word changed my perspective and my life.

See, it is our responsibility to impact the environment around us—but how do we go about that? I realized the only way to change my son was to engage with his gears. How would I do that? By getting down and locking myself in to where he was in the moment. Empathy involves entering into the feelings and emotions of another. It is to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15 nasb).

So I did an experiment. The next morning, I lovingly ignored him. I gave him a quick kiss on the top of the head and said, “Hey, babe,” in an offhanded, low-key way, then just let him be. To my amazement, he shuffled around the house quietly for a few minutes, then came and looked up at me with sleepy eyes.

“Mommy, I love you so much.”                 

Was it really that simple? Could it be that my morning monster just needed a little space? A little empathy? Of course, we cannot enter into sinful behavior. This doesn’t mean we join in to gossip, filthy talk, cynicism, or negativity. We are called to pull people out of the pit and up into joy. But before we can pull them up, we must first make contact and lock in to where they are now. We must empathize by entering into the thoughts, feelings, and emotions they presently have.

Unless the gears engage, they just spin.

Now, years later, I’ve seen the magic of engaged empathy work wonders with my son again and again. While it’s glorious to see him changed, it’s equally amazing to see my own heart transformed as well. Yes, mamas, empathy moves us to maturity as well.

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

Excerpted from Sacred Mundane: How to Find Freedom, Purpose, and Joy (Kregel Publications) ©2017.

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Kari Patterson reaches thousands of women worldwide through speaking events and her popular blog, Sacred Mundane. She’s a pastor’s wife, homeschool mom, Bible teacher, mentor, and passionate seeker of truth. All royalties from the sales of her book, Sacred Mundane, will benefit World Vision’s work with women and children in need.

Her online home is www.karipatterson.com.She is also active on Facebook(sacredmundane) and Twitter(@sacredmundane).