When people think and talk about New Year’s resolutions, they’re usually speaking about the secular New Year, right? All of their hopes, wishes, plans, and dreams for the coming year get neatly packaged in apps that track their progress, or scraps of paper they tuck into their daily planners. They promise themselves that “this will be the year I…”. Yet, the reality is that most of these admirable and important goals quickly fade into the background as the very hard work of accomplishing them overwhelms the good intentions that birthed them in the first place.
As parents of young children, I think we’re all way too familiar with the disconnect between what we plan to accomplish, and what we actually get done. And, depending on the day, find ourselves on a spectrum of feeling resigned to getting less done than we’d like, to angry and miserable at our inability to do so.
I’m wondering then, as we head into the Jewish New Year, if instead of making resolutions we can’t or won’t keep, we instead turn our aspirations for ourselves into a process that is a bit gentler and more forgiving than the “changing” and “fixing” that accompanies resolutions. What if instead, we decide to develop a practice that is, by the very definition of the word, something we will do over and over again in big and small ways as part of a personal journey.
And let’s say that this process helps us to develop better connections with our kids. To create a home life where everyone feels safe, respected and valued. To be better at responding thoughtfully to our children’s questions and needs rather than reacting without thought. To be the parents we want to be in the New Year. What kind of practice could help us with ALL of this?
We can achieve everything I’ve noted above and so much more if we commit to building an empathy practice in our lives. Empathy, it turns out, is a real family-dynamic game-changer.
So, what exactly do I mean by an empathy practice?
Well, empathy is about stepping into the shoes of other people, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide our actions. It’s different from expressions of sympathy – like pity or feeling sorry for somebody – because these don’t involve our trying to understand the other person’s emotions or point of view.
Sometimes, empathy is misunderstood as the “golden rule” – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The reason this isn’t quite right is that the golden rule assumes that the person you are trying to empathize with would want you to do for them what you would want done for you – it assumes that your interests coincide with theirs.
What empathy really is is more like the “platinum rule” – do unto others as they would have you do unto them. The platinum rule asks us to resist the temptation of projecting our own experiences, views or needs onto others, and to understand them and their needs well enough to do what they want from us, and not just do what we would want from them.
When it comes to building an empathy practice that helps you better connect with your kids, using the platinum rule instead of the golden rule might look something like this: even if your 5-year-old self would’ve LOVED a sports-themed birthday party, resist the urge to plan the kindergarten Olympics for your art-loving 5 year old. Instead, plan the art-themed party your child really wants (platinum rule), not the one you’d have wanted at their age (golden rule).
And guess what? Your kids can do this with you and one another, too. Children as young as two or three have the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, meaning they can practice (cognitive) empathy. This also means that they can practice the platinum rule alongside you. For example, when my son used to see his big sister crying or sad, he’d offer her his paci, since that’s what made him feel better. As he got older, however, and he saw she was sad, he’d go and find her lovie – going from the golden rule to the platinum rule – understanding that what she needed from him was what made her feel better, not what made him feel better.
How can you practice the platinum rule with your kids this year?
A second type of empathy focuses on shared emotional responses — mirroring another person’s emotions in an automatic, unconscious way (affective empathy). For example, when I saw my kids screaming and pulling at their ears as infants, I knew exactly how they felt, being myself a child who’d had tons of ear infections. I literally felt their pain.
How would practicing affective empathy help you better connect with your kids this year?
Empathy is all about tuning in with yourself and your kids. It’s about thoughtful reflection, deep understanding and careful listening – all of which align perfectly with our spiritual practice during this holy time of year. And next week, I’ll be back on the blog to share listening techniques with you that’ll support your empathy practice, and help you have better conversations with your kids about the things that matter most.
Until then – Shana Tova u’Metuka!
Dr. Alison Trachtman Hill is the founder of Critical Issues for Youth, a sociologist, and mom of two. Her new e-learning platform for parents launches in a few weeks, and she’d love for you to come get a sneak-peek at www.ci4y.com. Alison and her family recently moved to Denver, CO from Westchester, NY.