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Nurturing Cooperation Through Empathy

Seen recently in a video store: a young father, with a baby in a backpack, a daughter about age four, and an overflowing grocery bag. The little girl climbs up onto a two-foot high platform. The platform is not dangerous for a child that age, and the little girl is not doing anything harmful. She is simply standing there, looking around; it's hard to be short in a world designed for adults. But her father immediately hisses in a low, menacing tone: "Get down!" Then, without giving her a second to comply, he grabs one of her hands and yanks her with great force back to floor level. She might easily have been physically injured, but luckily she was not. Emotional injury, however, was done. She walks away from him, looking dazed and forlorn. A store clerk assures the father that "all the children stand up there". The father says nothing, nor does he even look at his daughter.

Hopefully, this was an unusual, isolated incident. Perhaps this father is normally more caring toward his daughter; perhaps he was fatigued from having cared for two young children during a long afternoon of errands. Perhaps he was raised to believe that child care is not an appropriate role for a man (the children's mother was not present). Perhaps he himself was treated with impatience and disrespect when he was a child. Perhaps he had not slept well the night before, or had many worries in his life. Perhaps next time when he wants his daughter to do something, he'll have more time and patience to give her.

All parents have moments when we become so frustrated, angry, or wrapped up in a particular situation that we miss the forest for the trees. Sometimes a parent is angry about something in his own life, which has nothing to do with his child, but he takes it out on her simply because she is there. While this is a common human failing, such scapegoating is entirely unfair to the child, who is guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

At these times, it can be helpful - though admittedly difficult - to step back and consider a more positive approach. Randall Rolfe, in her illuminating book, You Can Postpone Anything But Love, discusses communication between parent and child:

"We might say, 'You stop doing it because I said so.' But we seldom feel good about saying this. In fact, the kind of filial obedience we parents really want comes only out of mutual trust. This we foster day by day by sharing our thinking with our children, so that they can trust that our reasons are generally good and we can trust that they will sense when they must rely on our judgment."

Rolfe then offers a five-step pattern for saying "no" to a child: "We will try to say it: in a nice way; with a thoughtful explanation of why not; with an inquiry about how the child might feel; with a suggestion about what he might do instead, and with an offer to help him get started."

The second step, a thoughtful explanation, is perhaps the most challenging, as it requires that we be honest with ourselves, in order to be honest with our child. In our example, the father might explained to his daughter "This is where people return their video tapes and we need to keep this area free." Yet he himself had put his grocery bag on the same platform. It is more likely that he was anxious about possible criticism from the store personnel and this is the explanation he should give.

Children always recognize discrepancies between our feelings and our words; they pay close attention to our tone of voice, body language, and emotional state, and will detect and resent dishonesty.

If we apply Rolfe's five-step pattern to the father in the video store, he might have said to his daughter, in a patient tone of voice, "You look like you're having fun up there and getting a good look around. Honey, I'm worried that the store clerks may not want you to stand there. Here, let me help you down. We've spent a lot of time in stores today, haven't we? On the way home, let's stop at the playground so you can do some real climbing."

This sort of gentle, respectful request would surely have been honored, unless his daughter had built up a large store of anger over previous hurts. We adults all know that we are more likely to cooperate with someone who treats us with kindness and respect, than with someone who treats us with anger and impatience. Why should we imagine that a child will react any differently? Children are real persons with real feelings, who respond to the actions of others in exactly the same predictable ways that we all do.

A five-step request may seem like a lot of effort. Respectful, empathic approaches do require more time, energy and creativity from parents, but surely our children deserve such care from us. As Rolfe explains, a caring approach is "more effective than all the yelling and scolding in the world, and a lot more pleasant for parent and child alike. It takes a bit more time in the short run. But in the long run, we save a great deal of time, energy, and pain." And gain a lifelong joyful relationship with our child.

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.