My son exited school with tears in his eyes the other day. I could tell he was battling to keep them from falling and quietly asked, “Is everything okay?” He immediately lashed out with, “Why do you always ask me that? Geez!” and walked away. My mom instincts kicked in to find the problem, fix it, and even make a lesson out of the experience. But I took a deep breath, walked home with him, and let him be for a few moments. I focused on parenting with empathy.
When we arrived home, he found a snack, then settled down to watch a video. I cautiously approached again. He gae me an annoyed look, then burst out with a story of accidentally hitting someone with a book and getting in trouble. I could see his embarrassment and his frustration with the injustice. He berated himself for swinging his arms. He begrudged the teacher for not hearing his side. Worst of all, unexpected tears welled up with his anger, an unfortunate trait he inherited from his mom.
I couldn’t fix this and he wasn’t ready to hear his teacher’s side or talk about how he could be more careful in the future. I looked him in the eye and said, “I hear you. I believe you. I’m sorry that happened. I’m always here for you.” My son didn’t instantly feel better, but I watched his shoulders relax and a softening around his eyes. Looking at him reminded me where I learned that sometimes kids just need empathy: my mom.
When I was in elementary school, I earned a coupon for a Big Gulp at the nearby 7-11 from school. We didn’t regularly buy refillable sodas in the 80s like we do today and this was huge for me. I got home and wanted to get my reward immediately. Mom asked me to wait until she could drive me, but I simply couldn’t. My sister walked with me to the store and I remember the elation I felt right before the drink slipped from my hands and spilled everywhere on the walk home. All I could think was, “If only I’d listened to Mom.”
I arrived home and Mom didn’t say, “I told you so.” She recognized that I’d beat myself up enough on the walk home, wiped my tears, hugged me, and filled the container up with pop from the fridge.
Not long after I earned my driver’s license, I drove with a friend to our favorite Teriyaki restaurant. We got our food, then hopped in the car, radio turned up, to drive home. I remember checking and checking again before backing up, but I still backed my mom’s car into another car in the parking lot. Shaken, but unhurt, I recall thinking, “What will Mom say?”
I called my mom and she simply asked if I was okay and if the car was drive-able. She told me everyone makes mistakes and that it would be okay.
My sophomore year of college, I suffered from insomnia and had little interest in anything. My grades were suffering and I felt like a failure. I felt lost and hopeless and reluctantly told my mother.
She gently suggested that maybe it was time to get treatment for my depression. Just like so many other times in my life, she offered me love, empathy, and hope. I hope my kids will one day trust me in the same way.
Sometimes parenting is about helping kids learn a lesson, right a wrong, or take responsibility for their actions. Sometimes the lesson is in parenting with empathy; letting a child know – I hear you, we’re in this together, and you are not alone.