Teaching Empathy Instead of Obedience

Libby Anne’s latest brilliant post on parenting analyzes a recent incident in which her 2 year old son hit her 5 year old daughter with a toy and the 5 year old struck back and caused him to cry. As soon as Libby Anne heard him cry she swooped onto the situation and the 5 year old was willing to immediately admit she needed to apologize and profusely did so.

In paragraphs rich with insight, Libby Anne explains what she did from there and how she cultivated such a non-defensive and constructive attitude in her 5 year old in the first place:

The apologies out of the way, Sally and I had a conversation about what she should do if her brother hurts her, whether intentionally or not. Sally said one option was just moving away—going to another room, for instance—but pointed out that her brother might follow her (as he often does). I suggested she could talk to him, telling him that it hurt when he threw the train (or what have you) and asking him to stop. She found this idea interesting and was enthusiastic, but added that if he didn’t listen to her she would go to me or her dad about it. I agreed, and told her we were always ready to step in and help if there was a problem.

What struck me about this incident was that Sally’s honesty about her need to apologize did not stem from fear of punishment. Punishment is very rare in our home, as we have found that most wrongdoing can be handled more effectively (and positively) without it. In this case, Sally prompted her apology.

Ever since Sally was little, we have sought to foster her natural sense of empathy. We encourage her to consider others and to think about how her actions affect others. When her desires conflict with those of her brother, or with those of her father or I, we encourage her to consider others’ needs in addition to her own. With both of our children, Sean and I put more importance on teaching empathy than on teaching obedience.

This situation would have played out very differently had it happened when I was a child. My parents were strict and placed a primacy on teaching obedience to authority. Had I hurt one of my younger brothers, my parents would have spanked me and then required me to apologize (on threat of another spanking). There would have been no conversation, only a lecture.

How does the lesson learned from a spanking and a lecture differ from the lesson learned from empathy and a conversation? There are some similarities on the surface—both involve an apology and both involve learning something. But the reasons behind the apology and the things that are learned differ. When I was a child, apologies were forced on pain of spanking, and I well remember making apologies I didn’t mean. In fact, if my memory serves, my apologies were more likely to be motivated by threat of punishment than they were to be genuine. In contrast, Sally’s apology was completely genuine.

She goes on to explain her commitment to the principle that apologies should only follow genuine restoration in the relationship instead of be forced.

I think Libby Anne’s posts on parenting are a vital applied ethics resource for parents and everyone who wants to think through what it means to treat other people with empathy, with respect for their autonomous reason and agency, and with a focus on mutual empowerment. If you don’t already follow them, you’re missing out.

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