The Empathy Foundation Network

Growing empathy for a peaceful world

The Practice of Empathy with Small Children

The title Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline: The 7 Basic Skills for Turning Conflict into Cooperation caught my eye when I was browsing in a big bookshop in Melbourne. I was looking for parenting books because I have recently experienced the great delight of becoming a grandmother for the first time.

I trust the books that ‘jump out at me’ when I go book browsing. I go on a book quest when I have a certain question playing in my mind and somehow I’m always guided to the book that has the answers I need. This time my quest was for books about “conscious parenting” or “helpful parenting”, because I had at last found a name for the kind of parenting I relate to.

A fantastic book called Parenting for a Peaceful World by Robin Grille (that I will review another time) put the whole parenting story into perspective for me. Robin almost too graphically describes how for most of the history of civilization, it has been the norm for children to be treated with little or no respect or care, to put it mildly. The great thing is that there is a clear evolution in the right direction - from shocking violence to loving care. You may be surprised and pleased to know that a greater percentage of children are being treated with care and love on the planet now than ever before in human history. The names of the stages of the history of childhood give the picture pretty clearly. I’ll just list them so you get the idea: Infanticidal, Abandoning, Ambivalent, Intrusive, Socialising, Helping. Sadly, all the earlier violent modes of treating children still exist on Earth today. Fortunately though, we are evolving to loving, helpful parenting.

There’s been a lot of progress even since my children were little, back in the 80’s. Back then I didn’t know about the difference between “socialising” and “helpful” or “conscious” parenting. I didn’t fully grasp that socialising parenting practices stop short at the limited goal of training the child to conform to cultural norms. The aspiration of this kind of parenting is to produce a ‘good’ child, who is courteous and well-mannered, a productive and law-abiding member of society. I had always had a feeling that there was more to parenting than that, but couldn’t quite define what kind of parenting I was looking for!

Like so many other parents, then and now, when our kids were little we were learning on the job about healthy emotional development, and therefore we were changing the way we parented as we went along. I now understand that we were starting to practice “helping mode parenting”.

Helping (or “conscious” or “natural”) mode parenting attends to a child's emotional development by listening with empathy to their expressions of need. Helping mode parenting is motivated by the desire to allow and support the natural unfolding of each child’s unique individuality. That certainly resonates in my heart.

Back then, in the 80’s, I didn’t know why, but I did know that the different parenting advice confused me! I actually didn’t like socialising methods but tended to blame myself,for not being consistent enough or some other fault which made me unsuccessful at it. A common thing that parents do! It’s so clear now that I was looking for guidance in helpful parenting rather than socialising parenting. It's not surprising that I didn’t find my dilemma clearly stated in those terms. I did find books I preferred. One of them was Penelope Leach’s book Baby & Child. Incidentally it is recommended by Robin Grille as a helping mode parenting book.

Today the difference between socialising and helpful (or conscious) parenting is still not made clear on the cover of the parenting books available in the bookshops. I believe that many people advocating socialising parenting don’t understand the difference. It’s a hot and controversial topic of course. Everyone thinks they know best how to parent. However today we do have a lot of evidence from detailed research to help us to decide what methods are actually effective to achieve the outcomes we want. Dr Grille has collected very powerful evidence that socialising parenting seriously limits a child’s potential.

So what are the limitations of socialising as a parenting approach?

Socialising parenting uses three methods to achieve conforming to the desired behaviours. The first is ‘corporal punishment’ (hitting kids!), the second is shaming and the third is manipulation with rewards. All are damaging.

The research on hitting children to achieve compliance shows universally that it doesn’t achieve the outcomes the person doing the hitting is aiming for. Hitting children is ineffective, and not surprisingly, damaging to the child.

The effect of shaming is a newer area of research. Shaming is also is now understood to totally ineffective in achieving the desired goals and damaging to the child. Shaming teaches nothing about relationships. While shaming does have the power to control behaviour, it has no power to teach empathy. The only true basis for morality is a deeply felt empathy towards the feelings of others. Empathy is not necessarily what drives the ‘well-behaved’ ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’. At best, repeated shaming leads to a shallow conformism, based on escaping disapproval and seeking rewards.

What about rewards? Aren’t they a good way to get our children to behave well?

Actually no. Robin Grille lists ten ways that praise and rewards can damage our relationship with our children. In essence, making children do what they don’t want or love by offering them approval, praise or other rewards does not make them happy. Happiness comes only from doing what is intrinsically rewarding to us, and this does not require others applause. If we want children to become self-motivated and faithful to themselves, the way is not to praise them but to appreciate them.

I can do no better than quote Robin Grille’s summing up of this subject:

“Children are born with an enormous desire to learn. They also have an innate capacity for honesty, empathy and considerateness. These qualities come forward as a result of our guidance, our role modellng and our appreciation. Rewards and praise for ‘good behaviour’ or good performance’ simply get in the way.”

For more on this read Robin Grille’s book.

This leads me back to Becky Bailey’s wonderful book, Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline in which Dr Bailey gives detailed principles and practice for 'discipline based on love' - another name for "helping parenting".

Dr Bailey focuses on self-control and confidence-building for both parent and child. She says, “I wrote this book to help you permanently change your own behavior, because only by learning to discipline yourself will you be able to successfully guide your children’s behavior.”

Although the term “self-control” may make some of us squirm a bit, Dr Bailey’s definition is a loving one that appeals to me. She says that self-control is mind control. It’s being aware of your own thoughts and feelings and that by having this awareness you become the director of your own behaviour. This is about the journey of growing into a greater person yourself and modeling for your children that you are growing and learning, as you do your best to be a loving parent.

I relished the section called Appreciating Misbehavior in which Dr Bailey explains the seven vital functions that misbehavior serves. It’s so good to see so clearly described the value to children’s learning of their not doing what we want sometimes! Understanding that children learn vital lessons from their misbehavior and their mistakes, we can let go of trying to stop it, instead having the goal of preventing the likelihood of misbehavior being repeated or becoming a habit. Our job as adults is to tune in to children and respond as best we can, in a loving way that provides the learning they are seeking clearly and helpfully.

I recommend Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline as a reference to study and try things out through all your parenting years – and beyond. It’s great for grandparents too. Best of all would be to share your experiments with these methods with other parents. There are lots of real life examples and it will also take practice, dedication and love to learn these skills. All I can say is, it’s worth it. Every little bit of effort to understand and treat children with love pays off a thousand times over. With this beautiful and wise book in hand it is possible for parents to embrace conflict and grow closer and happier day by day with their children, through rising to the challenges of parenting as loving guides.

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Comment by Alice Aird on February 4, 2009 at 4:01pm
It is and i know one mother who is using it to great effect. I will ask her to contribute her experience here.
Comment by Jane Ramsay on February 4, 2009 at 10:14am
Going out to buy this book ! Sounds practically v. helpful.

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