Q: We have three children, ages 7, 4 and 4 months. We have been having problems lately with our oldest child and the concepts of empathy and caring for others. His behavior is often very selfish, with little thought of how it impacts others. Nothing flat-out cruel, but mostly obliviousness. We talk about respect for others, caring for others, the golden rule, respect for property, thinking about how actions impact other people. And we’ve been trying to instill thoughts about gratitude through routines where we say one “thank you” and compliment each other each night at dinner. Some things seem to stick, but others do not. It’s a continual frustration. With the new baby, there has been a lot of upheaval in our family, so we are trying to be patient and understanding of both that and his developmental stage and maturity level. But it’s hard. Any advice?
A: Watching the nightly news, I would argue that many adults are also having a hard time with empathy and selfishness right now. At least children have a good reason: immaturity.
So, what is going on with your 7-year-old? To understand empathy and the 7-year-old mind, you need to understand what true empathy means. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Think about that for a minute: It is a pretty complex thing to do psychologically, right? I am fairly sure that I lose my ability to empathize with another human depending on my hunger, fatigue and general mood many times a day.
For a 7-year-old to understand the feelings of another person, he needs to understand his own feelings. His feelings are pretty clear when it comes to preferences (he likes chocolate ice cream, not strawberry) as well as feelings of unfairness. But when it comes to the muddy waters of welcoming another new sibling, the feelings get more complicated. Every three years or so, another child is born in the family, and your eldest son is supplanted and must adapt. He has two opposing feelings at the same time: great affection for his new sibling and jealousy that he is being squeezed out. Again.
This happens in almost every family that has more than one child. Children are built to roll with these changes when they have a loving adult to help them navigate their big feelings. There is nothing wrong with the dissonance. In fact, we need it.
As you state, your son is not flat-out cruel, but oblivious. And while I appreciate the instilling of kindness and gratitude, let’s also let some of his feelings out.
There is a good chance that your son may get tired of his little siblings. The crying, the 4-year-old antics, the demands these younger children are placing on his parents — this is a lot for a 7-year-old. He has big days, important things happening and lots of things to say, but he is continually waiting or being pushed off so that you can serve the needs of the younger ones. And because he is older, he doesn’t lash out as he maybe used to. He may not hit them or call them names, but his heart is not very soft to them, either. Hence, the selfish appearance of his behavior.
What the selfishness is saying to me is that he wants and needs more of you.
Stop trying to instill gratitude or kindness in him (you either become the “Peanuts” teacher or you create shame in him) and go full-force into connecting with him. The sunshine of love and cuddling and cooing you are showering on the baby needs to be directed toward your eldest child as well.
Because you have a full and busy house, this connection may need a bit of planning. Sit down with your partner (or yourself) and really look at your day and week. Where are the pockets of time that you can carve out for your son? Where can you get some assistance so that you can take just him out? Maybe to a coffee or ice cream shop where you can play cards, or maybe to a playground to run and kick a ball, or maybe just on a walk to pick up acorns.
Those are “big” connection ideas, but let’s get even smaller. Day in and day out, work on making genuine eye contact with your oldest son. When he wants to say something to you, try to turn all of your attention to him. And if you cannot, get on his level and say: “Buddy, I want to listen properly to you. I am going to put you to bed and listen to all of your stories,” then make good on your promise. It’s amazing how far strong eye contact and smiling can go when you begin to make a conscious effort toward it.
Finally, when you get some one-on-one time with him, welcome some of his frustration. Go ahead and say: “Man, it must be frustrating having all these little siblings crying and whining all of the time. I bet I would get pretty sick of it.” Contrary to what you might think, an outlet like this does not grow resentment; rather, it is like a control valve, slowly and safely letting pressure out of the system.
And if your son feels that you are on his side, that you are for him, that you understand him, this will soften his heart toward you, his little siblings and his own big feelings. This is how we unearth empathy and kindness. Not through lecture and pushing, but through modeling it.
As he complains and you vigorously nod and make agreeing sounds, your son will feel safe and loved. You have the power to do this every day, often and freely. There is nothing miraculous about this type of connection; just make a plan to do it (because your brain is frazzled and tired).
Finally, turn that dinner into something a bit more fun. No one wants to end the day with a lecture — especially children. (School, remember?) Let there be laughter, silliness and more joy, even if it is for five minutes. It will smooth the path to bedtime and help your son feel more relaxed and heard.