As you are all experiencing right now, this is an extremely heavy and emotional time for our country and one another. Between the presidential campaign, multiple shootings, and widespread racial unrest, we are even more on edge and unsettled than we’ve been in a very long time. What’s most disturbing, however, is the the divisive manner in which we adults are clinging to what we want, what we think we know, and what we believe like the last piece of driftwood in the middle of a dark, stormy ocean. From the unfriending and blocking on social media, to the knock down drag out fights within families and social circles, to name calling and blasting one another, the world has become a scary place to be. And all of that is just among the adults. What we as parents must remember, is that our behaviors, words, actions, and the manner in which we communicate with one another on these issues is being watched carefully and closely by our children.
If we are angry, afraid, insensitive, ignorant, and anxious, our children pick up on that, feed on it, and internalize it. They may hold onto those feelings, allowing them to build up inside or they may spew them all over other kids or people in their own lives. The might manifest it through acting out, becoming immobilized by anxiety, or shutting down. How we process and integrate all of this information directly impacts the lives of our children. We are modeling for them how to handle all of this uncertainty. Do you ever find yourself ranting and raving about a particular issue out loud? Do you ever express fear or state that you will move to another country if a particular candidate becomes president? Do you voice your thoughts on one side or the other about players kneeling during the National Anthem, or about law and order? They are taking it ALL in. Imagine how scary and worried we are making our kids with all of this? Of course WE are scared and worried, but we MUST do a better job to share appropriate information thoughtfully and carefully, while shielding them from the nastiness. Who knows, we might even learn a few things ourselves in the process.
So where do we begin?
We have to teach and practice EMPATHY. The definition of empathy is “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.” It’s a tough one. How do we teach kids to develop empathy when we have such a tough time with it ourselves? You begin by talking to them about a friend they have or a person they know at school who might be different in some way. What makes them different? How he looks? How he speaks? The way he carries himself? Ask your child how he might feel if he was this other child. What would a typical day be like for him? How would classes and lunch go? What would his experience on the bus be like? How does it compare to his own reality? Helping kids do this over and over allows them to develop vital interpersonal skills they will use for a lifetime. Being able to understand and appreciate another’s experience without judgement is a gift. It leaves you less angry, resentful, and leaves room for growth.
The most vital link that must be made as you practice and teach empathy with your children is that they must hear you doing the same. Talk to them about the fact that just because one of your friends wants Donald for president and you want Hillary, does not mean that you cannot be friends. It means taking the time to fully understand the point of view of some one else, even if you don’t like it or agree with it. It’s really tough to do, but the more energy that people are putting into being angry, exasperated, and violent over someone else’s experience and point of view, the more we are teaching and modeling for our children that divisiveness is the only way. We are teaching them that it’s a waste of time to learn about someone else, or their culture, religion, lifestyle. If we truly want to “Make America Great Again”, assure that “Love Trumps Hate”, or support the “Black Lives Matter” movement, or the “Blue Lives Matter” one, we must first be able to acknowledge AND teach our children that there ARE different issues and experiences that are REAL for people, even if we don’t fully understand them ourselves. We must model for our children that it is our RESPONSIBILITY as HUMAN BEINGS to try to connect with one another and that it’s OKAY if we don’t all agree.
One of my favorite movies of all time is “Life Is Beautiful”. In the movie, the dad and his little boy are in a concentration camp during the war. As a means to protect his son from worrying and being scared, he pretends that they are just participating in a game which they can win by doing the right things and making the right moves. This is what I am challenging you all to do. Fake it til you make it. Even if you are so completely incensed over all of the issues right now, model a better person for your kids than you might be in your own mind. It will decrease your own blood pressure, and begin to lay a pathway of tolerance and understanding for the next generation. If we skip over the learning, practicing, and mastery of empathy, we are only making viable, flammable contributions to the chaos present in the world today.
So go ahead and instead of stomping your feet and letting your blood boil the next time you hear or see something you think is crazy or unfounded, try and ask the person to explain WHY she feels that way. Allow someone to teach you about another point of view. Think about what you learned and then share that experience with your kids.