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Category: Relationships / Topics: Attitudes Character, Integrity Choices and Decision Making Family Parenting, Parents Relationships Teaching Values

Lessons of Empathy and Good Behavior

by Ken Potts

Posted: September 8, 2019

They have to start at home…

J J Killins

Our 10-year-old son sat in the kitchen struggling to complete the ensemble of dress shirt, slacks, shoes and tie required by the school band director for that evening's performance.

Our 19-year-old son, a month home from college and gainfully employed at a local bank, stood at the counter, tie loosened, shirt tail hanging, shoes discarded, observing his younger sib's obvious frustration. Finally, shaking his head, he muttered, "Growing up is tough."

The 10-year-old nodded in silent agreement.

It was one of those rare, unexpected and cherished moments in family life we parents live for. For a few brief seconds, a bond of mutual understanding and empathy had been created.

Much of our time as parents can be spent simply policing the interactions between our children. Usually we are happy if we can enforce a reasonable level of tolerance and respect, some acceptance of each other's differences, a minimum of verbal and physical attacks, and so on.

We certainly don't expect our kids to like each other or show any obvious signs of affection or caring (and, I imagine, when this does happen, suspect either attempted manipulation or divine intervention).

Of course, we choose to believe our children love each other -- after all, they are family! And we are probably right. But love is not necessarily translated into like, or even into those minimal standards of acceptable behavior we see as necessary between people in a civilized society.

Now, that leads me to two important points.

First, our family is the initial and primary place in which our kids do learn how to behave according to those standards of acceptable behavior. We are doing our children a disservice if we allow behaviors in our family which society does not allow outside the family.

The 7-year-old who is allowed to angrily punch his 5-year-old brother will angrily punch a playmate or classmate. The 9-year-old who always gets her way in the family will assume she should get her way outside the family as well.

Second, we also can teach our children to go beyond those minimum standards. We may not be able to teach them to like each other, but we can point out what there is to like in each other (and how to find things to like in people in general).

We may not be able to force them to be understanding and empathic with each other, but we can model these attributes for them. And, believe it or not, they will eventually treat each other (and people outside the family as well) with such understanding and empathy if that is what they consistently see from us.

Trust me, when that happens, it all seems worthwhile.

Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of SamaraCare Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove, Illinois.

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Posted: September 8, 2019

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