It’s a fairly common story that, as children, we had “You should be more grateful for all you have” chucked at us.
And it’s normal that most of us have projected it at our own kids here and there. When our children complain at the injustices of their life; the liberties they do have or the money already spent on them still isn’t enough; we can be forgiven for getting pretty frustrated!
But, while I’m not saying we shouldn’t foster gratitude in our kids, we do to tend to view these situations with our very adult eyes, missing that our child’s perspective is probably very different.
For example, my niece recently stole my nephew’s lollipop that he’d won at my Hallowe’en treasure hunt… It was huge and blue, and she was never not going to get busted (especially with the blue face it left her with).
But she wasn’t thinking any of that in the time she decided to take it, and chow it down like her life depended on it. She was just being 6 and lacking the willpower to resist. She didn’t even get to thinking ‘How will this make my brother feel?’
In other words, she didn’t have empathy.
Empathy goes much further than being able to connect with another’s pain or discomfort.
While some children-and the adults they become- are more highly tuned to others’ feelings, or natural ’empaths’, empathy is still an executive function; a sophisticated set of skills that takes time and effort to develop.
Most children can definitely grasp the basics early on, but it’s still easy for us to mistake a kid who is following ‘the rules’ for one who is following their own values.
Both result in a child who looks like they’re ‘doing the right thing‘, but the motivators behind these behaviours may be very different.
Often, ‘doing the wrong thing‘ is less about being unkind or ‘naughty’, and more about the gain momentarily overpowering the consequence.
If only for the sake of your sanity, there are three things to hold in mind about ‘empathy’ on this parenting journey;
1) It’s unrealistic to expect children to have more sophisticated skills; such as intentional empathy; until they’re at least 8. This is simply to do with stages of brain development.
2) Even then, it will only develop and be mastered with plenty of practice!
Executive functions develop in the ‘plastic’ part of the brain, meaning empathy won’t develop on its own. The environment has to be conducive.
3) Later on, the restructuring of the ‘Adolescent Brain’ pretty much destroys empathy skills for a few years.
It’s challenging and maybe worrying, but perfectly normal!
So stay compassionate with your child – and yourself – in those moments…
Know that it’s ok if your child struggles to connect with others’ emotional discomfort or needs.
Be realistic about their ability to anticipate “If I do this now, this will happen later on”… especially over complex issues like injustice (i.e; the stolen lolly).
And if they don’t feel or express being grateful, it doesn’t mean you’re raising a spoiled, over-indulged child. Plenty of grown-ups I know don’t yet; and may never; have the perspective-taking skills empathy, and especially gratitude, takes!
Let’s face it; ”You should be more grateful for everything you’ve got” is more successful in generating shame than genuine gratitude, so; like so many of the characteristics we want to foster in our kids; it starts with the grown-up.
Model it, do it, be it. What are you grateful for today?
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