I've recently realized the importance of showing empathy as a parent. This has made all the difference in the behavior of at least one of my children, and has helped establish a closer relationship with all three. But I can't help but feel like this empathy sometimes crosses the border from relationship-building to gushing and coddling. As a homeschooling parent, it always amazes me, too, to think of how matter-of-fact Charlotte Mason expected parents to be in their parenting. So which is the better approach? Empathy or stoicism? I am not a psychologist or counselor by any means, but I am a mom trying to figure out this parenting gig.
The Super Empathetic Parent
These parents are concerned with their child’s physical comfort and want them to feel loved. So they offer as much sympathy as they can when their child is injured or upset. They often scoop up their children the second they fall, to let them know that they are there to support them. They work to solve their children's problems because they understand just how difficult those problems are.
This approach can sometimes get young children looking for problems. They know they'll get their parents' undivided attention and empathy if they are upset or hurt, so being upset and hurt becomes a normal operation for them. I have witnessed this both as a parent and a teacher. Sometimes children create mountains out of molehills because they crave the connection that these troubles bring. They develop a habit of bonding over negative things, a pattern that is not the trademark of happy, emotionally healthy adults.
The Indifferent Parent
I've known several parents who don't react at all when their children are upset or hurt. I admit that I often give pause to decide whether or not a situation requires a response. With one of my children, not reacting emotionally when they do is key.
Charlotte Mason suggested that mothers and caretakers not react when a child gets hurt. This teaches them to change their thoughts, and not dwell on something painful or unfortunate. The ability to change thoughts demands will-power, something many adults never developed.
A baby falls, gets a bad bump, and cries piteously. The experienced nurse does not “kiss the place to make it well,” or show any pity for the child’s trouble- that would make matters worse; the more she pities, the more the child sobs. She hastens to ‘change his thoughts’, so she says; she carries him to the window to see the horses, gives him his pet picture-book, his dearest toy, and the child pulls himself up in the middle of a sob, though he is really badly hurt. Charlotte Mason, Home Education
Charlotte Mason's philosophy is not harsh, but is concerned with the whole child. A stoic reaction was highly valued in the Victorian age of emotional stuffing. As outdated as it may seem, there are skills that can be developed through it.
The indifferent parent doesn’t model empathy skills for their children, a skill that is increasingly important in our time. I have specifically witnessed a lack of empathy backfiring on me. In an experimental stage of stoicism, Miss H started telling me, "You're fine!" I heard this as I accidentally cut my finger with a paring knife, or had a major problem with a delivery. This lack of empathy was obviously not a desired trait, but it took my child to illustrate that for me.
Like so many things in our world, this doesn't have to be black and white. We don't have to err on the side of one or the other- we can show both empathy and emotional control when they are needed.
The Balanced Parent
The balanced parent waits to see what their child needs before reacting. When I notice that an injury looks bad, I respond with empathetically. I don’t dote and coddle, I simply say, “That looks like it hurt. Let me see." When emotions are high, I try to decide if there's something else going on that needs to be addressed before diving in to full-out problem-solving mode. Maybe my child's world is seemingly ending because he or she is hungry? Maybe the spat with friends has to do with communication skills that I can help them develop?
When it comes to physical injuries, sometimes just saying that I saw an incident eases fear. They know that Mommy saw it, and isn't reacting dramatically, so they must be okay, too.
I understand Charlotte Mason’s perspective on this, and if we look into historical context of an age that valued self-control and a lack of emotional show almost over all, it makes even more sense. It is important to demonstrate the way of the will for children. They need to learn to change their thoughts, and not be trapped by the negative thoughts that burgeon in their minds. However, Charlotte Mason also mentions how important modeling is. If I constantly model indifference to things that truly pain and affect my children, how will they learn to be kind and caring friends?
The Bottom Line
The bottom line here is that we know our kids. We know when they’re actually hurt, or searching for our love and comfort. Sometimes they need our hugs and sympathy, and sometimes what they need most is the assurance that they can handle what comes their way.