The Power of Empathy, by Barry Ebert

“Children become confused when parents become rigid, holding rules above love. Be consistently flexible. Hold tight only to compassion.” ~ William Martin, The Parents Tao Te Ching

There are probably no words less comforting to a child who has made a mistake than “I told you so!” Can any of us remember enjoying hearing that message from our parents when we’d blown it somehow? How about “maybe this will teach you a lesson.” That’s another good one.

It seems that, when our children are born, these parental clichés are installed in our brains and they continue to blurt out at the worst of times. The main reason we say them is because we think we’re right and we want our offspring to know it and learn their lessons from our hard-earned wisdom. Guess what? We probably are right. And have any of us found that being right has helped our relationships grow stronger and more loving?

I was fortunate enough to discover the book Parenting with Love and Logic by Jim Fay and Dr. Foster Cline when our children were very small. One of the cardinal rules of their school of thought is: “whenever possible, let empathy and consequences do the teaching, rather than anger and punishment.” That one concept has been a life-changer for me.

Our children are going to make mistakes. When we treat these mistakes as learning opportunities and keep our anger and self-righteousness out of the equation, they can learn their lessons more quickly and our relationships can grow stronger through the process.

I was recently teaching a Parenting Teens with Love and Logic workshop at a local high school. On the first night, the parents expressed their frustration and all of the problems they were having with their teenagers. The parents’ homework was to have a “thinking state discussion” sometime during the next week with their child about something they considered important. The only rules: find a time when neither parent nor child is angry, listen more than you talk, and keep it short.

The following week I could feel a tangible energetic shift in the room. Almost every parent had a good experience with the exercise. Their children were still essentially the same as they were the week before. But the parents had tasted the power of empathy and compassion in their own lives and were determined to stick with it. That will indeed teach their children a lesson.


The Thinking State Discussion, by Barry Ebert

“As immortal right now as you will ever be, underneath this blanket of stars. Always remember what a beautiful child you are.” ~ from the song Beautiful Child by Barry Ebert

When our children move into their glorious pre-teen years and begin to push back against us, we clearly have to up our game as parents. We can’t protect them or just tell them what to do anymore. It doesn’t work. But we don’t have to lose touch with our children during this monumental shift either. We can talk to them.
This part of the journey sends our beloved offspring headlong into the biggest forest of changes they will ever face. The shepherd teachers of elementary school are gone and the multiple scenes and characters of their lives begin to take precedence over childhood things. Hormones kick in, and add the biggest spice they’ve ever been given to mix with their lives and thoughts. Is it any wonder that their grades start to drop?
At this time it’s easy for parents to let their fears get the best of them, and fear often shows up as anger. We want to get them back in line. They’re pulling in the opposite direction. They’re learning how to stand their ground. It gets emotional because our hearts are so invested in them.
The most powerful tool I have discovered for talking with pre-teens and teens (or anyone really) is what I call the “thinking state discussion.” The essential condition is that both parties must be in the thinking state when the discussion takes place. Parents must lead the way and resist moving to the emotional state. Hold your ground with peace in your heart. Ask questions. Breathe through
Keep it short. The car is the best place because they know when and where they can get out and say goodbye. Listen as much as you can. Hang in there. If you’re not feeling respected, end it with a simple “I’m not feeling respected right now. We can come back to it.”
I call the Parenting Teens with Love and Logic workshop “a self improvement course that your kids trick you into taking.” The thinking state discussion is the first week’s homework. Week two always starts with some heartfelt stories of a parent really talking to their kid for the first time in a long time.
When their changes come, we have to change our style too, and remember that they’re still that same beautiful child that they’ve always been. Just the packaging has changed.