Empathy Opens What Anger Closes

The milk spills. The door is left open. A plate is abandoned with only half the food consumed. The expensive bike you just purchased is in the ditch in front of the house. These experiences represent an immature child displaying a predictable amount of irresponsibility. What is your reaction? Get mad and start yelling? Fix the problem while muttering complaints and threats? Fix the problem without a word?

Or let the consequence do the teaching?


There will be no shortage of immaturity from our children today. No matter how much we fix and no matter how often we complain, our children have not grown up yet. Expecting something they simply cannot deliver robs our homes of joy and the opportunity to learn and mature.


Our world and our culture are providing lots of opportunity for angry responses. We find ourselves yelling at the television, shaking our fists at other drivers and snapping at the people we love the most. We are just angry. Anger seems to be the chosen first response to almost anything we experience.


Have you ever noticed what anger does to a room full of people? Walk into a crowded room where people are talking and laughing and enjoying one another’s company and see what yelling and threatening does to the atmosphere. Conversation will cease while people systematically look away, walk away and shut down. Why would we expect a different reaction from our children when we yell and threaten?


Have you ever left something out in the rain or dropped something valuable and broken it? How did it feel? Did you hope that no one noticed? That’s because deep within, we all crave understanding and empathy rather than lectures and explanations about how being careful cures all ills.


Empathy provides sad eyes to a child who is irresponsible rather than mad eyes. Empathy places a gentle hand on the shoulder of a discouraged child rather than raising a threatening hand to compound the problem. Empathy ends an expression of sadness with a smile of hope because we believe everything really will be okay.


Most importantly, empathy opens a child’s heart to the realization that we are a loving parent who knows how mistakes cause pain but we want to be a friendly companion rather than a cranky judge, jury and executioner. If you don’t believe it, try entering that same room of conversation with a smile, a laugh and an engaging question rather than yelling and threatening. Big difference!


Empathy also allows a child to participate in the solution to his own mistakes. It invites her to help clean up the milk, go back and close the door, learn what hunger feels like and experience how much a bike is really worth by saving up for the replacement. Empathy allows the consequence to do the teaching while we come alongside our children with sadness for their pain. Empathy refuses to steal the opportunity to learn and mature by fixing everything, replacing everything or just complaining about the mistakes that occur each day.


In a world where the one who broke it replaces it and the one who spills it cleans it up, mistakes aren’t our enemy they are our friends. Mistakes provide the opportunity to learn about reality while empathy soothes the pain resident in that reality. Mistakes should become a part of life or a matter of fact instead of a threat to peaceful coexistence. Who wants to live with a red-faced screamer?


Unfortunately, our children don’t have the choice; we do. Let empathy bring some peace into your home.

Dr. Matt Crain writes for the Sunday newspaper from his Connecting Fathers and Families ministry.