Just Show Empathy Bro!

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Yes, as you may have heard in last weeks blog it took me a long time to give parenting classes a chance. When my wife first suggested we take parenting classes (spring 2013) my thoughts were: Why do I need to take a parenting class? I am a grown man. I have no addictions. I love my family. I have a career. I am mentally stable. My parents already taught me everything I need to know about being a parent. I don’t want to learn how to spoil my children in the 21st century. All I need to do is set limits and if my child doesn’t want to listen I will just remind them of who is the boss!!! I would have all of these thoughts and I actually felt proud of my “I am not going to parenting classes” stance.

But in early 2014 I finally agreed to attend the parenting class with my wife because, as I have shared, I realized that spanking my kids was not working. She tells me it is going to be a 10 session class series, one every weekend. At this point I am thinking: These parents must be pretty bad if they need these many lessons. I am sure these “parenting classes” will end up confirming that my parenting practices are spot on and the teacher will end up calling on me (the star parent) to share some of my best discipline moments with these lost parents.

One of the first classes was about how the brain works and develops from infancy. And to my surprise I was very interested. Top-notch research based stuff from well-known academics in the field such as Daniel J. Siegel from UCLA who my wife referenced in last weeks blog. I was very fascinated by it, learned a lot and everything made sense. I was feeling good about things since I was actually learning something and I still felt like a pretty competent parent…until the next class.

What happened? Empathy happened. Our teacher starts explaining that empathy is the ability to understand and share the experiences of others and that empathy is one of the best ways to connect with our children by helping them to express their emotions and show them that we hear and understand them. Once the explanation is over we are given a chance to practice our empathy skills.

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The teacher explains that we are going to do a role-play exercise using a real life scenario of our choosing. We choose our son not wanting to brush his teeth as our scenario. My wife decides to be the kid in the role-play and I am the parent. We are told to start by facing each other at about an arms length distance and then the parent (me) needs to start talking to the child using empathy. My wife is instructed that every time she hears something that makes her feel heard/understood she should take one step towards me but if she hears words that make her feel not heard/understood then she should take one step further away from me. I am thinking: This is going to be simple. How hard can it be to show empathy? I am going to nail it!!!

So here are the different things I said to my wife: Come on, you know we all have to brush our teeth. You don’t want to have a smelly mouth. Brushing our teeth is not that difficult. It only takes two to three minutes.   All kids brush their teeth. You don’t want to get any cavities, do you? You don’t want to end up at the dentist, do you? Do you really want to have rotten teeth? If you don’t brush your teeth then millions of bacteria will spread in your mouth and every time you speak a terrible stench will come out of your mouth. You don’t want that to happen, do you? You don’t want to be the one kid with a smelly mouth at school, do you? You don’t really want to have dark yellowish brown teeth, do you? Just stop it and brush your teeth already!!!”

As you can imagine my wife was getting further and further away from me. I was like, “babe are you really not connecting with me? I’m being super kind to you and you are getting further away from me?” If it were not for our instructor, who took notice of our performance, my wife would have been outside the building. I could not authentically connect with her. I didn’t understand!!!

It was very embarrassing to admit that I could not utter empathetic words such as: You must be having a really rough morning. I can see that you really dislike brushing your teeth. Would you like to tell me the reason you don’t want to brush your teeth? You are really angry with me because I am making you brush your teeth when all you want to do is watch TV. I felt that way too when I was your age, but what if we both brush our teeth together? Would you like to brush your teeth with me? Why could I not come up with those words with my child!!!

In our next session we were asked to reflect on our childhood experiences. The instructor took us through a reflective exercise. She asked us to remember a time when we were disciplined by our parents. We had to remember what happened, what was said, how our parents reacted, how we felt. I went back to when I was around 8 years old.   My father gave me a direct command to take back a wheelbarrow that we had borrowed from my grandfather but I said, “No, how embarrassing to get there and say Papa Jose, here is the wheelbarrow.” My dad said “What? You will take it! And you will take it right now!” And I said, “No, I am too embarrassed!!!” He took out his belt and proceeded to chase me for over a mile all the way to the countryside. I remember I was trying to hide behind cacti and bushes but my dad kept coming. I thought I was fast but in the end I got tired and I had to think of a way to avoid being whipped with the belt so out of my mouth came “I need water, I am dying, I am dying, I need water!!!” And I threw myself on the floor and acted like I was fainting. It worked because my dad put me on his shoulder and carried me to the house. He just threw me in my room and told my mom that we would settle this whenever he came back from running an errand.

Bingo! This is when I started to connect some dots. First, empathy can really transform our relationships with our children. In that moment when I was embarrassed to take the wheelbarrow, my father did not stop and try to understand what I was feeling. If he had he would have learned that I felt really embarrassed because I knew my grandfather had guests and I was not dressed well and I was being asked to take an old dirty wheelbarrow. I was really embarrassed about how I looked. Had he used empathy that moment could have been completely different. He could have helped me process my feelings and feel comfortable taking the wheelbarrow. It could have been a moment when I felt like he really understood and cared about what I was feeling.

Second, I realized that I could not speak to my children using empathy because I had never been spoken to with empathy. My amazing parents did not have that skill set in their parenting tool box so how was I going to have it? I gave myself a break and let go of the embarrassment for my lack of empathy skills.

And that’s it. I committed myself there and then to figure out this empathy thing because I did not want my children to go through this life without knowing that I hear and understand what they are feeling. I still have a really hard time communicating empathy to my kids. But thankfully empathy seems to be more natural for my wife but I give myself a break and keep on trying to be patient and compassionate with my children.  I can see that I am using empathy with more frequency every time.

But if this is the first time that you are hearing about empathy I am sure you are thinking that it sounds like a bunch of new-age BS. And you know what? I get it. My siblings even make fun of me at times, “Bro, just use empathy!” I used to think that way too! I think that you just have to try it for yourself and see how it goes.  There are times when I am able to really listen and understand my children and it just feels amazing.

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Let me know what your thoughts are. Is empathy in your parenting tool box or is this the first time you hear about it? Do you have a hard time communicating empathy with your kids like me?

Please leave us your comments below and let the conversation begin. If you think that this post can be helpful to other parents feel free to share it and subscribe to our blog so that you do not miss any future blog posts!

In solidarity,

Paulo

P.S.  If you live in the LA area and are looking for a parenting class we have included the link to ECHO Parenting below where we took our parenting class.  Check it out!

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