Tips for growing wise and empathetic kids

Perhaps you are already aware that the brain is under construction for a good portion of adolescence and well into the 20’s (and some even report into the 30’s.) And the part under construction most during this time is the Pre-Frontal Cortex. For simplicity’s sake, let’s just say this part of the brain is home to wisdom and empathy. And this area grows in response to how it is used – what is reinforced and wired together. So, follow me. . . .if we want more wise and empathetic kids, we have to grow a more wise and empathic brain. Makes sense, right?

During this time, with 90% of us on mandatory sabbatical, it’s so easy to plop little ones in front of a screen or let the older ones hang out on their devices all day especially if the input is “educational.” This will certainly grow the brain in important ways. This is not a bid to stop use of electronics. Rather, it is an opportunity to leverage that experience (or any experience) to grow wisdom and empathy. Bottom line – whatever the source of data input, wisdom and empathy won’t happen without engagement – without your help.

So, here’s my suggestion….

1. ENGAGE – At some point, engage in some aspect of what they are doing or observing. It’s not reasonable to expect that you could be sitting there all day with them, just a few times a day. Share in the experience and if you can’t share, simply be beside them while they do their thing. Keep in mind, when children are fully engaged in an activity that does not involve critical thinking, they are in a state similar to hypnosis – an active learning state where direct and indirect suggestions come right into the subconsious without question. This is a wonderful place for a child to be, and at the same time, a potentially dangerous place without integration of the data input. So, stay engaged and available to help integrate the content they are exposed to.

2. BE PRESENT WITHOUT JUDGMENT – When we react to content, we project our world view upon it, and children wanting to stay safe and accepted will often embrace what we project. Instead of commenting, simply let them have their own experience without the filter of your content. As long as they are engaging in something safely, you can sit and watch with them without coloring their experience with yours.

3. INVITE REFLECTION – At some point during the experience, when there is a natural pause (or potty break), ask some of the following:

  • What was the main character thinking there?
  • How do you think they were feeling?
  • What would they have had to believe about themselves to respond or react that way?
  • What do you think they needed?
  • What kind of things (backstory) might that character been experiencing to do what they did?
  • What kind of things might this character do differently in the future because of what happened?
  • How would you have felt if this was you?
  • What would you have done? And what would have come of that?

These questions invite identification with others and allow the brain to create important solution scenarios. The questions cause the child to switch perceptual positions with another as if floating out of themselves and stepping behind the eyes of another – seeing the world from their perspective – thinking their thoughts and feeling their feelings solving their problems. This grows empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another (Webster) while creating a mind body machine that can strategize, anticipate, predict and experience positive outcomes. The happy biproduct of that? Less stress and anxiousness.

4. STAY PRESENT AND LISTEN WITHOUT JUDGEMENT – Ask the question and then listen. . . really listen. Be present. Don’t drop the question bomb and then walk away and get engaged in something else. Turn your eyes and body to your child. Communicate through body language “This is important to me. You are important to me.” When they speak, listen. Do not interrupt or comment on their responses expect with loving interested eyes. Your verbal input turns their attention away from their inner experience and vocabulary. Remember, it’s really important to let this processing happen without your judgement or projection. You need to let the child’s brain chew on the question and an answer without your input. They may communicate something cogent first time out the gate. They may not. Let them try again. But don’t jump in and shape their responses. Feedback and course correction are part of the process. They need to learn to the process of dipping into their existing resources before they defer to yours. Give them time to reflect and chew and speak and if necessary, reflect, chew and speak some more. Regardless of the topic, THAT’S the activity that grows Wisdom – the process of chewing and formulating and communicating and then rechewing, reformulating and recommunicating until you ascend to the highest level of perspective and response.

5. CELEBRATE AND RECOGNIZE: It’s never too soon or too late to start engaging your children this way. Remember, you are in the business of growing independent wise and empathetic human beings. So, reinforce this kind of thinking and being whenever you see it. Catch them in the act. A reinforcement could be simply, “I like the thought you put into that response (or solution)” or “you were really dipping into your wisdom and empathy when you did that.”  

Some things to be mindful of:

1. YOUR TONE – You could create a potentially negative experience by inviting reflection and dialog only to invalidate by and through your response to their response. So, comments like “that’s stupid,” or “seriously?” or even “why would you do that?” can come off invalidating especially if it’s said without regard to tone. So be mindful in your response and positively reinforce the effort with comments like “that’s interesting” or “what an interesting way to see it.”

2. YOUR TIMING – Slow and easy does it. If you haven’t engaged your child like this before, don’t go full throttle. Rather, slowly being to introduce questions like this when you see them absorbed and just start with one question at a time. And, choose a time when your child is the least likely to be irritated by you and your engagement.

3. YOUR ROLE – Children are watching everything you are doing and the strategies you are using for survival. They watch your processes and behaviors to glean what works and what doesn’t work. If you are not modeling this way of being, you cannot expect them to value it and demonstrate it. So, demonstrate it.

If you need help with this, let me know. Click to CONTACT ME and I will send you a list of resources to support your deeper dive into these approaches. Simply put “PARENTING RESOURCES” in the subject line.  Also, be sure to check out my WORKING WITH KIDS AND TEENS page for more information about how I can help you help your kids enjoy powerful, positive change!

I know I’m asking a lot. It’s a tall order during a very difficult time, but nothing is more important. Doing less won’t change our children, much less the world. These are the skills they will need to get through this and future challenges. We owe it to them.

Let me know how it goes and how I can support you.