“Yesterday I was clever I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise and am changing myself.” ~ Rumi

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about empathy. Empathy is a word that is thrown around a lot, particularly in respectful parenting forums and books. I wonder though how many of us have a real understanding of what empathy really is and how to give empathy to the people in our lives. In particular our little people.

As I was researching more about empathy, I found more and more articles addressing what was considered a total empathy deficit in our society, so much so it has even been given a name EDD empathy deficit disorder by some physicians in the psychology field. As I read and listened more, the word narcissism popped up frequently in reference to current and future generations of young people.  I think empathy and narcissism are incredible interwoven.

Empathy is described in the Oxford dictionary as “the action of understanding, being sensitive to and vicariously experiencing the feelings and thoughts of others”

while narcissism is the ” extreme interest and admiration of oneself, extreme selfishness”

When I say I believe that these two things are interwoven, It is because I have come to understand that the capacity to feel empathy is particularly difficult when one is focussed inward on his own needs and desires, so much so that he or she would possibly be described as Narcissistic. A complete selfishness and lack of empathy for the plight of other human beings. Those who have a lack of empathy for others may be in desperate need of empathy themselves to help them heal from those things that have turned them inward but they are less likely to receive it. Someone who does not receive empathy will be more and more in deficit.

What makes a young person or adult a narcissist. I refrain from talking about children because they are by nature egotistic. It is in their best interest for their survival. But what happens when our teens and young adults show a significant lack of empathy and connection.

There could be two contributing factors. The western idea and pursuit of success and society’s very limited and negative view of children.

Carol blacks research and documentary schooling of the world very poignantly illustrates how very misplaced the idea of the ‘American Dream’ is and the untold stories of its destructive and harmful effect on the underdeveloped world.  A multibillion dollar industry selling education to the people of the underdeveloped nation. They are sold the dream that if they become educated in schools like the ones our children attend, they too can have the American dream. A designer career, money, power and success. The reality is for so many  that they are lost in between two worlds. They have lost connection to their families often leaving home and travelling far distances to live and work at school, In doing so they lose their culture, stories and history. They no longer know of what world they belong. In addition this dream of a western success is mostly not a reality. We have sold them the ultimate lie, and the cost is huge. The heart is lost.

Unfortunately we are not immune to the same lie. We have sold the same idea to our own children. With an ever-increasing demand for excellence, the pursuit of academic success is at an ultimate high. The scale of the damage we are causing to our young people is yet fully to be understood but its is clearly evident that the voices of our youth are being ignored by those in ultimate power. Instead of listening to what the research shows us about forced early academic learning, lack of play in the early years and the impact on children’s mental health. The government continues its agenda. Future workers, tax payers, consumers.

Evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray has his own theories about the reason why our young people are showing signs of narcissistic behaviour. His research suggests the reduction of play has had a significant impact. Play is the work of children and where they ultimately learn the art of communication. Today playgrounds are over supervised, over regulated and dull children have less and less time to play unsupervised without being micro managed by adults, they are also forced into activities they have no interest in and therefore begin to exhibit the behaviours parents might describe as unmotivated, and lazy.

Could it be that laziness is a product of boredom, a lack of intrinsic motivation, too high and expectation of success in academia and deterioration of curiosity and passion. Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards, discusses in detail the very damaging effects of our reward, award and grade system. Over time what the reward does is takes the focus of the action away from the child and shifts in to the reward. In other words. The child intrinsic motivation for the action diminishes over time, whereas the extrinsic motivation increases. A child who is frequently rewarded for a particular behaviour or action is eventually only motivated by a reward not the sense of accomplishment or enjoyment of learning. He is less likely to exhibit the same behaviours, work or action if the reward isn’t present. This result is children who are driven by external factors. Eventually the reward isn’t enough and he is craving more. But is always left feeling unfulfilled. Such characteristics such as curiosity, innovation, exploration and joy are all dimmed by these system, because rather than curiously seeking, he will answer only what is required to pass the test, rather than challenge and change he will work out whether the reward is greater than the risk of failure. It also a system that teaches children very early that in order to succeed someone must fail. Have you ever received a grade that wasn’t particularly what you hoped for then glanced over at a friends grade who received lower and felt slightly better? That it was ok because you didn’t fail as bad as the person next to you. Is it human nature to feel happy when someone fails, or is it that we are conditioned by these rewards system to value our own successes dependent on the success and failure of others. The problem with looking outward for a measure of success is that you will never be satisfied. There will always be more to gain and those rewards become less and less meaningful. For a true measure of success we should look inward at our own selves and focus our outward eyes on the needs of others. Focussing on others needs helps to bridge the deficit in our empathy stores.

I think we have a great fear that if we don’t push young people by giving them incentives such as rewards they wont amount to anything, they wont be motivated, they wont be passionate. I think our negative attitude towards children fuels this fear greatly. We can’t  fully appreciate just how driven a child is to learn and succeed in everything they need to be a succesful adult, unless we have truly given them the opportunity and put our trust in them to develop those passions, and interest. Children are born curious and wanting to learn everything of their world, but because many children have only ever known to do things for reward, for praise, for acceptance this can be hard to see. The fear of failure as a parent, drives us to push further. We fear that if we don’t force independence, push success, enrol them in every extra curricula they will be lazy and never accomplish anything. Be firm “dont pander to your childs every whim” ” at some point we all have to learn to do things we dont like” ” how will they survive in the real world if they cant handle a little bully”. We project these fears into the future.

The problem with this thinking is it leaves little room for empathy. The words, “your alright, move on, stop being so dramatic, it’s not a big deal” These are all words that come from fear. It also comes from the lack of empathy that we ourselves have received, perhaps for similar things. Remembering that in order to give empathy we must ourselves have felt true empathy. Otherwise we alienate our heart from our mind, we listen to fear instead.  Without empathy we are all a little bit lost. We carry our burdens around with us daily, communicating in ways that leave us unfulfilled. We may sympathise but Empathy is a true art.

When we don’t empathise with our children. They will fill their cup in any way they can and often seemingly insignificant things can result in a big reaction for a child, leaving a parent wondering why? It’s either met with little empathy or a parent rushes in to fix it for the child. Neither address the underlying emotion that is needing to be expressed and heard. It is the same for adults, when we don’t receive the empathy we need, we can become defensive, offensive, passive aggressive and resentful. The good news it is never too late to start giving and receiving empathy.

It is truly amazing the change that occurs when someone feels truly understood.

An example I have that may be useful for parents, but can be translated into any conversation is as follows.

Children fighting over a toy.

Non empathetic response

“Mum he wont let me have a turn” “He never lets me have a turn”

” Well you can’t always get what you want, you have to wait” Screaming follows, I want a turn, whingeing whining. “Stop whining, you have to wait, your being silly” Goes to take toy of sibling.

Parent steps in, now your both not getting a turn. Screaming from both children.”Well i told you if you didn’t share with each other than no one would get a turn.”

Another example  would be a parent rushing to stop the screaming and insisting the other child hand over they toy.

Both do little to empathise  and the child hasn’t learned any tools to deal with a similar scenario next time, in fact its likely to encourage more explosive reactions in future.

Empathetic response

“Mum I want that toy, he wont let me have a turn, He never lets me have a turn”

“I hear you, you really want that toy, You feel like he is having a much longer turn than you”

“You are finding it hard to wait, waiting is hard and frustrating. You really want that toy, you had such fun playing with it last time”

“It’s ok to be frustrated. I am here with you”

Sometimes with a younger child fewer words are better, but acknowledging the feeling behind his words or actions is key.

In Dr Marshall’s book Non Violent communication he states that “empathy allows us to reperceive our world in a new way and to go on”

You will notice once the child or person feels like they are being heard that they begin to relax they may start telling you in more direct ways what they are feeling now.  Sometimes I am overwhelmed with emotion when I hear the real feelings that flow out once they know I am really listening. I am grateful that I have been present in that moment to hear them.

Discovering empathy has opened some wounds. Realising much of my own burdens that I have carried even from childhood pain that has gone unacknowledged. Empathy has not come easy to me. It takes practice. It may feel strange at first to talk in this way. However over the week I have really been opening up to this feeling. Being slightly introverted and socially awkward at times I find the execution with others hard, but I have been talking in my head a lot, as strange as that sounds. Acknowledging where I didn’t listen to a feeling someone was expressing and either jumping to defend, attack or self blame. It’s easy to hear the negative first. I’ve also been observing more, and trying to be mindful of what the other persons needs are. It has helped me to feel more connected to the people around me, not only that but people in general.

I really believe that the key to solving this apparent lack of empathy in young people and in fact all people is to start as early as possible. Observing, listening and giving. If we can show our children empathy they will be well ahead of so many of us. Not only this but if we can truly let go of the idea that children’s only way to succeed is to be pushed and sent on the egotistical pursuit of success train, let them grow at their own pace, help them to develop their interests organically by supporting everything they do and to preserve their curiosity and love of learning by ditching rewards and celebrating who they are, not what they do and what grade they get.

So if you want to follow me on instagram, I will be doing an Empathy challenge 52 weeks of Empathy in photos #empathychallenge

Follow me @lizzybourhomeourschool and join me on the challenge.

The book that I will be referencing a lot is Dr Marshall’s Non Violent Communication, which is a must read for anyone wanting to be more mindful of how they communicate with others.