When I was 15 years old, my mom’s youngest two siblings, who were actually more like my big brother and big sister than uncle and aunt, invited me to see Robocop. I desperately wanted to see the movie, or at least I thought I did. I think I mostly wanted to hang out with my aunt and uncle, and I felt flattered that they would include me. But to my utter devastation, my parents decided that I couldn’t go.
Even though the movie had too much violence for me, I threw myself a lavish pity party in my bedroom. In the middle of the melodrama, my dad knocked on the door. He hadn’t changed his mind, but he felt bad that I was taking it so hard. I still remember looking into his eyes and seeing a look that said, “I’m hurting because you’re hurting.” It took the wind out of my sails. I was still sad, but I was able to get over being mad at my parents.
The ability to see, think, and feel things from another’s perspective – to empathize – can be difficult for anyone, especially parents. I often find myself more focused on what my kids should be doing rather than considering why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Picture this: a small four-year-old boy is scream-crying in a van, doing everything he can to avoid getting into his car seat. He even runs to the back of the van and starts pounding on the rear window with his little fists. His parents try a series of tactics to persuade him into his seat, yet he resists them all.
Before I had kids, I would have raised my eyebrows at this scenario, wondered why the parents were letting this little hooligan get away with such antics. What I wouldn’t have known is that the boy in distress had just said goodbye to his aunt and uncle, and he was quite upset about it. It may have reminded him of how much he was already missing his grandparents. Or maybe he thought he should have given one more hug or blown one more kiss, and the adults hadn’t paid enough attention to his needs.
In moments like this, when I’m feeling frustrated and impatient and completely out of ideas, I need to remember what it’s like to feel really sad and out of control of my own circumstances. I need to dig deep for a little empathy, look at the situation through my child’s eyes and ask myself, “If I was him, what would it take to calm me down?”
Looking back, I suspect that waiting a few minutes until he was ready to be consoled and acknowledging his sadness and frustration would have helped. Which causes me to wonder: Why am I always rushing? Why do I feel like I have to prove something by insisting on immediate compliance with my every wish and whim?
What we know is that empathy is learned. If I want my children to learn to respond with empathy, then it is up to me to model it for them. This requires that I acknowledge their emotional reality even if I can’t give them what they want in that moment. This means that I need to slow down, at least long enough to look in their eyes and let them know that I’m with them. That if they’re hurting, I’m hurting. That I am on their side; that I am for them. That their feelings and their hearts and our connection are more important than my schedule.
Jesus models this idea of “being with” perfectly. I am overwhelmed when I think about God becoming one of us. He came to be with us – to feel what we feel, to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch life with us.
“He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!” — Philippians 2:6-7, The Message
To follow His example means that I must ever strive to be with; to understand, as deeply as possible, where my kids are coming from. I must learn to put aside my pride and my parental status and stop clinging to my preferences. It’s not all about me.
They say learning isn’t so much what’s taught, as what’s caught. Let’s hope my kids catch this one.