You change your tone of voice–it’s more demanding now: “Because I said so.” Immediate frustration–her eyes begin to well. Now you’re met with stonewalled resistance. You know there’s a better way. New strategy. New tone: compromise. “Look, sweetie, if you study your vocabulary words then you can have technology time.”
You pivot again. This time, pleading: “Come on. If you won’t do it for me, do it for your teacher; she’s works so hard.” Finally, with nothing else working, here comes guilt: “I work every day so that you can have the things you want, and you have one job–to do well in school. What if I ‘just didn’t want to’ go to work one day?”
Ultimately, this whole conversation ends in some degree of defeat. You think you’re being supportive, but actually you spend 25 minutes of painful, step-by-step hand holding–where you do the majority of the work.
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN DEMANDING AND ENABLING
It doesn’t matter if you have a six-year-old or a sixteen-year-old, parts of this conversation have taken place in your home. When we ask our kids to do something–like complete schoolwork, write thank you notes, or clean their rooms–there is a wide range to how we ask. On the far right is ordering and demanding (“Because I said so”) and on the far left is defeat and enabling (“Fine, I’ll just do it.”)
We’ve heard the arguments: if you push too hard, you’re a tiger parent, driving your kids to succeed with stress that ultimately drives them away. If you enable, you create entitled kids who lack resiliency. Fortunately, there is a middle ground, and it is a choice that is quickly gaining popularity. The choice is empathy.
As a quick, working definition: empathy is where you feel with the other person. This is different from its cousin, sympathy, where you feel for the other person. Showing empathy allows us to love our kid for who they, where they are, while still holding them accountable with high expectations.
THREE STEPS TO EMPATHY & ACCOUNTABILITY
But what does it mean to show empathy? The following three steps are simple to type, simple to read, but only manifest with patience and practice. But I promise you, as someone who practices, fails, and reattempts these steps every day, the times that you get all three steps right are the greatest moments of parenting and bonding you will experience with your child.
Step One: Remove the self. At first, this step sounds like you simply leaving the room. Although that may be necessary to gather yourself, this step is actually about removing your sense of self (aka — your ego) from the equation. Too often, when our kids get angry, we get angry. Any parent can attest that this never ends well. Meg Meeker in her 2017 book, Hero, implores us NOT to take our child’s anger personally. Our child may be angry that free time is being used or that he has to do something less interesting than video games and playing with friends. This frustration will be pointed at you, but your child is not angry with you. So, when your kid gets angry, remove you from the equation–know that they are angry at something, but not necessarily you.
Step Two: Meet your child where he is (without judgment). Put the following words in your mouth: “You’re right.” Now, say them with feeling and sincerity–you’ll know if you’ve got it because the pitch of your voice will go up, not down. Once you’ve got it, try the following phrase, but while you’re saying it, imagine talking to someone who just lost his or her job. “You’re right; that is tough. I’m sorry you’re having to go through that.” This practice is not meant to belittle you, it’s just that this exact phrase meets the individual right where he or she is at, without putting any personal spin on it.
Unfortunately, if you’re like me the personal spin does come in, and I often say things like, “Don’t worry, it’s not that bad,” or “You got this. This is nothing.” Although well-intended, these phrases do nothing to build the other person up. Quite worse, they undermine the other person’s feelings. If you’re six, then cleaning your whole entire room is an insurmountable task comprised of endless hours of work; you saying, “It’s nothing, you got this,” is not helpful. Instead, meet them where they are without judgement.
Step Three: State your expectations (they will figure it out). When students are asked what grade they think they will earn on an upcoming assignment, they are surprisingly accurate. In fact, the third most accurate indicator out of 195 other indicators and influencers. Why? Because kids know what they’re capable of and what they’re willing to do to get there.
Want another example? Pretend that your kid says he’ll only score a 70 on an upcoming spelling test; so you ask him, “Why didn’t you choose a higher score?” He answers with things that fall outside of his control–the words are too hard, the teacher doesn’t like him, he only has one day to study. However, if you ask, “Why didn’t you choose a lower number,” your kid will respond with everything he does have control over: “I’m not dumb. I know how to spell over half of these. Some of these words are easy. I’ve already studied some.”
These examples may be focused on grades, but they really do drive the point that kids know what is expected, what they are capable of, and what they are willing to do to get it.
For the parent who has utilized the first two steps (remove the self and meet your child without judgment), the third step is to layout clear expectations. There is no anger because you are removed from the situation; instead, you simply state the fact that “In this house we don’t do half of our homework”, or “We clean our rooms on Saturday,” or “We always put forth our best effort.” Don’t budge, your child will figure out what they are capable of doing.
This is not a new concept. Many schools have caught on to this tactic by utilizing a system called PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support). You’ll know if a school has a PBIS system if the hallways are covered with posters that say “At Smith Elementary we show respect, follow directions…” The school is making it clear that these are the expectations, and the students then learn to rise to this level. You love your children, and Brene Brown tells us that love is manifested through accountability, so state your expectations without wavering–they will figure it out
LET’S REVISIT THE CONVERSATION
Let’s return to that opening conversation–this time eavesdropping on what you might say using our three-step approach to empathy,
“What homework do you have to do? … “You have to memorize all 20 of these words?” … “You’re right; that is tough. I’m sorry you have to do all that.” … “When’s the test?” …. “What do you think you’re going to get?” … “A 70? Hmm…why didn’t you say 50 or 30?” … “Okay, so you know how to spell some of them. What would you need to do to score a 90 or a 100?” … “It sounds like you know what to do in order to do your best work.” … “In this house you are expected to do your best work.” … “Well, you just told me what you need to do, and it sounds like you know how to do it.” … “I won’t do any of your work for you, but let me know if you get stuck.”
HERE’S TO AWESOME KIDS
Then we delegate, give directions, or teach others, there is a continuum of support ranging from demanding to enabling. Either one of these extremes is counterproductive, stagnating affective growth and decreasing chances of both short and long-term success for the person we are ultimately trying to help. Somewhere in the middle, is a place of empathy–a form of genuine understanding where we remove ourselves, feel with the other person, and hold those we love accountable while showing respect. Continue to practice these three steps with me, and you will experience the rewards that come with cultivating resilient, caring, respectful, fun, interesting, and successful kids.
About the Author
Justin Vawter is Co-Founder and CCO of NuMinds Enrichment (headquarters in Addison, TX). He has taught and brought inspiration to his students for almost a decade–ranging from 6th graders to college-bound seniors. He holds a Master’s Degree in Curriculum & Instruction from the University of North Texas, and has served as both a curriculum writer and professional development author/presenter. His passions include travel (most recently a Western European and Central American excursion), long-distance running, triathlon, and implementing new ideas into the classroom. As of today, he has finished over a dozen triathlons, including the IronMan, and seven ultra marathons. Publications include submissions to The Delta Blues Symposium and The Dallas Morning News. He can be reached directly at Justin@numien.com.
 examples found in Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley (2013)
 The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups by Leonard Sax (2015); The Me, Me, Me Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World by Amy McCready (2015).
 “Alan Alda Wants Us To Have Better Conversations,” Hidden Brain (audio recording), released 1/22/2018
 Hero: Being the Strong Father Your Children Need (2017) by Meg Meeker
 Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning by John Hattie (2011)
 Instant Influence: How to Get Anyone to Do Anything–Fast, Michael Pantalon (2011)
 The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown (2010).