Are you rais­ing a brat? Build em­phathy in­stead

Your Baby & Toddler - - Contents -

YOU THINK YOUR child is the most amaz­ing hu­man be­ing ever to have been born. The rest of the world does not. Man­ag­ing that con­tra­dic­tion can be chal­leng­ing: ei­ther you need to bring the whole world around to your way of think­ing – im­pos­si­ble! – or you can pre­pare your chil­dren for the idea that, while their par­ents adore them no mat­ter what, the rest of the world will like them more if they put a lit­tle ef­fort into their re­la­tion­ships.

“Con­fi­dence” has be­come the magic word for par­ents won­der­ing how to arm their chil­dren with the psy­cho­log­i­cal ar­mour they will need to con­front life’s in­evitable bat­tles. “Don’t al­low your­self to be bul­lied,” we tell our chil­dren. “Don’t be a door­mat, speak up, step up, lean in – be con­fi­dent!”

But chil­dren are still learn­ing, and they strug­gle to dis­tin­guish sub­tleties – like what sep­a­rates con­fi­dence from lack of care, or even mean­ness.

Imag­ine the scene: at a noisy birth­day party, you find your child re­fus­ing to par­tic­i­pate in the game of Pass-the-par­cel; in­stead, he is sit­ting apart from the crowd with his fin­gers in his ears. To your mind, he is block­ing out the sounds he is su­per­sen­si­tive to, but to your host­ess, he is be­ing un­gra­cious, even rude.

Or af­ter an hour-long wait at the doc­tor with the three-year-old, your name is called. “Fi­nally,” you think (to your­self), and “fi­nally!” your mini-me pipes up (at full vol­ume), as you scram­ble to get the of­fended doc­tor back on your good side.

These chil­dren are act­ing ageap­pro­pri­ately, and be­ing hon­est, not rude (in fact, we of­ten praise chil­dren for their re­flex­ive hon­esty, their in­abil­ity to dis­sem­ble). You just wish they knew they didn’t have to be that hon­est…

See how easy it is for the “con­fi­dence” that par­ents aim for to trans­late, in prac­tice, into ar­ro­gance, a dis­re­gard for other peo­ple’s feel­ings, and a sense of su­pe­ri­or­ity? This is not some­thing that will help your tot in the long run.


Em­pa­thy – the abil­ity to feel what an­other per­son is feel­ing – is a qual­ity that devel­ops grad­u­ally with age. As Erin Wash de­scribes on the blog Mind Pos­i­tive Par­ent­ing, a one-year-old may go to his own mom for com­fort when a friend is cry­ing. By age two or three, that child may go to call his friend’s mother in­stead, be­cause he un­der­stands that this friend would pre­fer her. He has put him­self in his friend’s shoes.

A one-year-old can of­fer a hug to a cry­ing friend. But that same child may laugh when his brother hurts him­self. In both cases, says Walsh, the child has an emo­tional re­sponse to an­other per­son’s dis­tress – the rudi­ments of em­pa­thy.

“Know­ing how to han­dle big feel­ings and trans­late them into be­hav­iours that can truly serve an­other per­son is a far more com­plex task,” says Walsh. “Em­pa­thy is a work-in-progress through child­hood and ado­les­cence and is shaped by a range of fac­tors in­clud­ing ge­net­ics, tem­per­a­ment, con­text, and en­vi­ron­ment. Em­pa­thy does not, how­ever, sim­ply un­fold au­to­mat­i­cally in chil­dren.”

Once your child has de­vel­oped the abil­ity to see from the per­spec­tive of the doc­tor run­ning late and try­ing to make up time, or the birth­day girl’s mom who is try­ing to en­sure ev­ery­one is hav­ing a good time, he will prob­a­bly re­think his spon­ta­neous, too-hon­est re­sponses. In the mean­time, here’s how you can stim­u­late the devel­op­ment of healthy con­fi­dence along­side care for oth­ers.


Early se­cure at­tach­ment is a pre­cur­sor to the abil­ity to ex­pe­ri­ence em­pa­thy later in life. “As care­givers nur­ture and care for in­fants, ba­bies are mak­ing cru­cial as­so­ci­a­tions be­tween pos­i­tive hu­man in­ter­ac­tions, re­ward sys­tems, and feel­ings of calm and safety. Chil­dren that feel safe, se­cure, and loved are even­tu­ally more sen­si­tive to oth­ers’ emo­tional needs,” says Walsh.

Se­cure at­tach­ment means you are re­li­ably there for your child when she needs you. With young ba­bies, you can use fa­cial ex­pres­sions and sounds to mimic their ex­pe­ri­ences, show­ing you un­der­stand your baby’s emo­tional life. Name, and talk about, your feel­ings with slightly older chil­dren to de­velop their emo­tional range and lit­er­acy.

When your child does wrong, re­mem­ber the dif­fer­ence be­tween


dis­ci­pline and pun­ish­ment, cautions psy­chol­o­gist Batet­shi Matenge. It’s point­less to force a three-year-old to par­rot “sorry” when he’s ru­ined some­one’s pic­ture if he doesn’t ac­tu­ally feel sorry, for in­stance. But you could ask him, “I won­der how Zola feels when you put paint all over his pic­ture?”(you should also re­move him if he keeps ru­in­ing the pic­ture, of course.)

In this way, you can set kind, solid bound­aries for your chil­dren, which have to do with out­lin­ing the scope of ac­cept­able be­hav­iour, not with pun­ish­ing bad be­hav­iour.


If you are an en­ti­tled brat your­self, your child will have no other model but yours to fol­low. Bad man­ners are all too com­mon. Mind your­self – yes, even in traf­fic. When you have re­acted im­pa­tiently, or treated some­one – whether a beg­gar or a BMW driver – badly, and you re­gret your be­hav­iour, make amends.

“The abil­ity to say, ‘I got it wrong but I keep try­ing’ is the hall­mark of a good par­ent,” says Matenge. “It mod­els in­sight and the abil­ity to self-re­flect, in­ten­tions to do bet­ter, and the un­der­stand­ing that we all get it wrong some­times.”


If you are read­ing this, chances are your chil­dren are well-loved, fed and ed­u­cated. And while you don’t want to need­lessly dis­tress chil­dren, de­vel­op­ing a grad­ual aware­ness that not ev­ery­one lives like you do is not only okay, it’s good for your chil­dren.

South Africa is one of the coun­tries with the big­gest gap be­tween rich and poor in the world. Some lit­tle friends may visit your house and be as­tounded at how mod­est it is. Sim­i­larly, to other vis­i­tors, it will seem pala­tial, as Karen Weese tells in an anec­dote in a Wash­ing­ton Post ar­ti­cle, “How to Raise Kin­der, Less En­ti­tled Kids (Ac­cord­ing to Sci­ence)” (Oct 4 2016). She says the phe­nom­e­non of avail­abil­ity bias causes one to think what you see around your­self is the norm. So if your lit­tle pre­cious is see­ing every­body around them in de­signer branded cloth­ing, “our kids are go­ing to think that’s nor­mal, not be­cause they’re spoiled mon­sters, but be­cause it’s what they see ev­ery day,” she says.

Sim­i­larly, a process known as he­do­nic adap­ta­tion means we get used to al­most any­thing if we are ex­posed to it reg­u­larly enough – a rea­son why your chil­dren for­get to thank you for a milk­shake treat that they get on al­most ev­ery trip home from school, and also why your chil­dren may ex­pect to have their beds made or their din­ner places set by you, if you are do­ing it for them reg­u­larly.

The an­swer? Grad­u­ally de-ac­cli­ma­tise your child again. If you are wor­ried about a lack of grat­i­tude or hu­mil­ity, you can gen­tly re­duce the re­cur­ring treats un­til they seem like a spe­cial oc­ca­sion again. Start ask­ing your chil­dren to tidy up af­ter them­selves, make their beds or lay the ta­ble if they are not do­ing so. Do it kindly and con­sis­tently and you’ll soon see a be­hav­iour change.

Cru­cially, this is not about sham­ing your child for hav­ing things. Rather, the level of ma­te­rial wealth you en­joy as a fam­ily can be in­de­pen­dent of how much of a pleas­ant, mod­est, and grate­ful per­son your child is.

And on the flip side, says Matenge: “Of­ten, chil­dren who have grown up with ma­te­rial de­pri­va­tion are un­der the mis­ap­pre­hen­sion that, once they ‘make it’, all their de­pri­va­tions will be re­solved. This is not ac­tu­ally true: as­pir­ing to ma­te­rial wealth alone means you still live with emo­tional de­pri­va­tion no mat­ter how much money you amass. It is far bet­ter to raise an emo­tion­ally well­bal­anced child who will be­come an adult who has a solid and happy sense of the role they play in re­la­tion to oth­ers.”


You may think about sup­port­ing the Feed A Child char­ity, whose pam­phlets you re­ceive in the mail, but never ac­tu­ally get around to filling in the do­na­tion. But if you walked past a child who had just fallen into a river, it’s very likely you would jump in to save him or her.

An iden­ti­fi­able vic­tim is more likely to spur us into ac­tion than an ab­stract idea, Weese ar­gues.

So in­stead of speak­ing to your child in gen­eral terms about “those who have less than us”, you could choose chil­dren of your kids’ ages and gen­ders when par­tic­i­pat­ing in a project such as the Santa Shoebox Project (san­tashoe­ za). Your chil­dren are likely to show great gen­eros­ity when they can imag­ine a real per­son re­ceiv­ing the Christ­mas presents.

What­ever you do, “don’t use oth­ers’ de­pri­va­tion to guilt your chil­dren into cer­tain be­hav­iours,” says Matenge. (“Eat your food, other chil­dren are starv­ing!”) “You don’t want to see other peo­ple’s de­pri­va­tion as a con­se­quence of your child’s bad be­hav­iour.” In other words, star­va­tion in the world is not your child’s fault. But you might like to raise him to be the kind of per­son who wants to help com­bat star­va­tion as an adult.

“You rather want to fo­cus on ac­knowl­edg­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties that the other is go­ing through. Oth­er­wise it fos­ters re­sent­ment of those who don’t have,” says Matenge.


The temp­ta­tion to of­fer money as pay­ment for do­ing chores is un­der­stand­able, but there is at least one pot­hole in the plan: re­search shows peo­ple feel far more val­ued if they are thanked for help­ing rather than paid for it. YB

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