I'd like to say that I respond to my children with empathy as my first and immediate response. I'd love to say that I never waver from a loving and kind stance, no matter what the situation might be, but alas. It just isn't true. Sometimes, even though, as I begin, I know it is the wrong/unhelpful path to travel I plunge headlong regardless.
The other day while writing a post to this blog the two younger girls were playing in the bathroom bathing a baby-doll. In the back of my consciousness I could hear them getting prickly with one another but I didn't tune-in completely to their struggle. I typed onward until their yelling and screeching broke through my concentration. With consternation I burst onto the scene.
Me: YOU GUYS!!
Xi: She splashed me and I don't want to be wet!!!
Echo: Will you hold me mama!!?? Wahhh!
Me: (Sternly and annoyed)What happened?
Xi: She got me wet!
Me: (Exasperated) And what did you do?
Me: (Frustrated) I don't believe that. Did you say you'd prefer to stay dry? Did you ask her to stop?
Me: What did you do instead?
Echo: Well, I got her wet and she hit me! And then I hit her and I spit at her.
Xi: No I did not Echo! You hit me.
Me: Well you guys, I really don't like how you are treating each other. Xi, if Echo does something you don't like, talk to her about it and if that doesn't work come and get me to help you. But you didn't do that, did you, and now look at you guys. Both of you are upset. And Echo, Xi didn't like getting wet and she didn't like getting hit either. You chose to handle it in a way that was upsetting to both of you. Now you're both mad and both crying. Etc. Etc. Etc.......
I went on and on. Annoyed. Exasperated. I didn't pick Echo up. I blustered about, wiping up water, and scrunching up my forehead in irritation. And then after I had "sorted it all out", deciding who was at fault and what they could have done differently, guess what? THEY DIDN'T FEEL BETTER. My response had not improved the situation in the slightest, in fact it only made it worse. By the end of my rant Echo was a crying lump on the living room floor and Xi was slumped against the bathroom wall, tears stalled on her cheeks and hair hanging limp.
They were still mad. And sad. In fact as a last stab Xi said: Thanks a lot for getting me wet ECHO.
And I said: Hey! I don't like the way you are talking to her. If you are upset with her then say that instead of sarcasm. That's bullshit. We don't talk to you that way and I don't want you to talk to her that way.
Guess what? That didn't work very well either.
I took a deep, regretful, breath and started over.
I asked Xi what, in particular, she was upset about and she wouldn't answer me. Understandably she wasn't exactly seeing me as an ally. So I made my best guess.
Me: My guess is that it feels unfair. Unfair that Echo got you wet, unfair that she spit on you, and unfair that I came in and started yelling at both of you and not her.
Me: Would it have felt better if I had just checked in with you when I came in? Talked with you about your feelings instead of huffing and puffing at you guys?
Xi: (Smiling) Yeah. You were like the grandmother in that book we were reading!
Me: I know. I was mad and saying, "you did this, and you did that!". That was definitely a mistake. I made a mistake. It didn't really matter who did what to who, what mattered is that you guys were upset.
Xi: (Happy) Yeah.
Then I crawled over to the lump of Echo on the floor to give her love and hear about her feelings, and it was over. Happy children and happy Mama. Once I got out of my automated response and switched to empathy, the process was lightning-quick.
At the bottom of it all I was mad, annoyed, and frustrated that I was interrupted from what I was working on. I didn't take a second to give myself empathy before I barged in to "help". Instead I carried my emotions with me and threw them at the girls. Secondly, I fell into the trap of thinking that by giving the kids empathy I would be siding with one or the other, or condoning their actions. It felt like if I picked Echo up and held her I would be supporting her decision to spit at Xi. If I wiped Xi's tears and rubbed her back, it would be like telling her it was okay that she didn't use her words to communicate with Echo. This way of thinking is a trap because it causes me to act against what I know.
Empathy supports a person's feelings, not their actions.
Empathy allows a child to act from a place other than their feelings.
I managed to pull the interaction out of the gutter at the last second. Thankfully we all came away from the dispute feeling more connected, but it was a close one.