Empathic Discipline

Empathic Discipline is a model of behavior management based in empathy, self-reflection, and connectedness. (It may be useful to read my post about empathy before continuing this one). While punitive discipline can be effective in increasing obedience, it often breeds resentment and can damage or weaken relationships. Instead of setting yourself up as an adversary, I suggest making use of human empathy in two ways to help children regulate their own behavior with you in a benevolent coaching role.

First, we must strive to make any and all behavior management decisions from a place of empathy. This means developing the skill of pretending to experience a situation from another person’s perspective. When children “misbehave”, this skill weakens in the face of irritation, frustration, and even anger. Empathic Discipline calls upon us to recognize this tendency in ourselves and arrest the force of these negative emotions by choosing to adopt the child’s perspective. This choice helps us to understand the motivations behind children’s actions, and to have compassion for their fears and insecurities when we respond.

The second use of empathy is appealing to the child’s own empathy and inborn humanitarian tendencies. Children desire fairness. They naturally understand the so-called Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”) and will try to protect others from negative emotions they have experienced themselves. But only if they are aware of what causes these emotions! They must also be taught to practice empathy, so that they can engage in the same reflective reasoning that Empathic Discipline requires of adults.

Here’s an example:

Angry kids often lash out physically. Most adults, and myself long ago, will take the kid’s hand and say in a stern voice, “No! We don’t hit!” Or something to that effect. They might even impose a punishment for such violent behavior.

In Empathic Discipline we use a totally different approach. If a child hits me now, I look at the child, showing hurt on my face, and say, “Ow. You hurt me just now. Did you realize that it hurts when you do that?”

This response uses empathy in both ways because it requires the adult to reject a harsh response and deliberately use a gentle and vulnerable tone, while also appealing to the child’s desire to be kind and not hurtful.

What I particularly like about this response is that it puts the responsibility on the child to make the decision about his or her own actions. And the decision will be based on their desire to maintain positive relationships with the people they love. Instead of a threat of punishment inflicted by the adult, we warn of an inevitable weakening of the relationship as a result of the child’s choices. In addition, the language and tone used convey that the parent is not interested in threatening with this weakening, but rather hoping to strengthen the relationship with empathy.

With the knowledge of the consequences of their actions, children make their own choices about whether they will be punished or rewarded. They must understand that the punishments and rewards at stake are natural, inevitable results of their choices. When they do, you will find that they often feel sorry and genuinely apologize.

One of the hardest parts of practicing Empathic Discipline is letting yourself be vulnerable in front of someone who is hurting you. Another is constantly activating your imagination to perceive situations from multiple perspectives. Another is choosing love when you are angry. What I’m trying to say is, It’s difficult. But it’s important. At the end of the day, what really matters is your relationship with your child. Harsh punishments may get quick and easy results, but they damage the bonds between people. Empathic Discipline mends and strengthens those bonds.

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