A very long time ago, I found my 3-year-old son standing by the wheel chair of a frail, older family member four generations his senior, saying in a taunting tone of voice, "My Mommy says I don't have to kiss you if I don't want to."
At a previous family gathering, he had been terrified when she removed her dentures, and he still hadn't recovered from the sight. Part of his recovery involved me letting him know that he was allowed to keep his distance from anyone who made him feel uncomfortable, relative or not. While he had clearly learned important early lessons about boundaries, he knew nothing at all about empathy. As embarrassing as that may have been for me, I had to remind myself that it was totally normal behavior for his age.
Empathy, or the ability to tune into the feelings of others, is a sophisticated process that takes time to unfold. It's not fully developed until late adolescence, but there are important things that parents can do to build the early foundation. Punishing or shaming a child for blurting out a statement that embarrasses you ("Mom -- look how fat that lady is!") doesn't help -- in fact it generally does more harm than good. As bad as you feel for the person whose feelings were hurt, your young child likely has no idea what you're upset about. A sudden expression of anger can bathe your child in shame and frustration, two emotions not at all conducive to learning. But kids do understand feeling good; the easiest way to teach young children about empathy is to let them bask in your praise when they have made someone else feel good. This starts the process for them to gradually understand that their behaviors have an effect on other people.
And here's the golden opportunity for a New Year's resolution that can pay dividends for years to come: Resolve to make the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," a fundamental rule of your family. Strange as this may seem to healthy adults, young children yet to develop an ego have no concept of the fact that they can have an impact on others.
Little kids learning empathy make better siblings, friends, and classmates. When kids start dating as young adolescents, empathy becomes a key component of sexual health and safety. It is developmentally normal for adolescents to put a higher priority on their own individual feelings than those of others. When sexual activity ensues, raging hormones can overpower what little judgment teens have. Research shows us that kissing and petting start as young as ten or eleven; oral sex can begin as young as twelve.
One study of more than 1,000 seventh graders, average age twelve-and-one-half years, found that "overall, 12 percent of students had engaged in vaginal sex and 7.9 percent in oral sex." A youngster engaged in heavy petting can easily become so totally occupied in the intensity of their own new feelings that those of the partner become irrelevant. No parent wants to think of their child coerced into an unwanted sexual act by an aroused and curious partner or accused of date rape because they were out of touch with the feelings of their partner.
As the year draws to an end, offer your child the wisdom of the Golden Rule as a tool for the great adventures awaiting them in 2014. Praise your child of any age for treating people well, and model love, respect and empathy any chance you get.
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