Do Little Girls Have to Be Mean?: Thoughts on Raising an Empathetic Child

My husband and I were married for nearly seven years before we had our first child. For most of those seven years, people would ask when we were going to start a family. This question, as well intended as it was, irritated me because I had no answer. “When we are ready” is what I would often say. What I meant was when I feel less selfish. When I learn to like people needing me. When I feel like I can put someone else before myself. Truly put their needs before mine. Because the thing is I have been self-centered for as long as I can remember. I have a habit of seeing the world first through my lens and grumbling about how something affects me before actually taking time to think about how it affects someone else. How could I be a good mother and bare those faults?

Raising an Empathetic Child

The moment I learned I was pregnant was the moment I learned that I could love someone more than anything else in the world and that I could love my husband more than I ever thought was possible. I also learned that I wanted to teach this child how to be better than me. I wanted this perfect creation to go forth into our world making it a better place by metaphorically walking in the shoes of those around her.

girlsIt became my goal to raise an empathetic child. We bought a book on feelings and from the time she was one, we would identify the feelings the child in the book portrayed and label those feelings.”He is feeling very sad. See his tears? How can we make him feel better?” “She is happy! See her smiling? What makes you smile? How can we make our friends smile?” It was a constant dialogue between me and my baby. I say dialogue, but it was more a monologue since she couldn’t talk yet!

As she grew, I became more cognizant of labeling my own feelings. “It makes mommy so frustrated when I can’t open this jar.” “Mommy is exhausted after a long day at work.” I wanted to show her that she was not alone in feeling these things (whether over her desire to and inability to put on her own shoes or how tired she was after camp) and give her the words to express these feelings.

And every day before I would drop her off at school, I would ask her four questions. “Raise your hand if you are smart!” “Raise your hand if you are sweet!” “Raise your hand if you are funny!” “Raise your hand if you are kind!” Girls are so often told that they aren’t these things as they get older. It was important to me that she believe from the outset that she undoubtedly was. She didn’t have to be mean, because she had been raised acknowledging that she was kind each and every day.

You’re Not My Best Friend Anymore

And I felt like we were doing our job as parents. We were raising a wonderful little girl who was thoughtful and generous of spirit. More than once, we got a note on her daily report from school saying that she was kind to one of her friends when he or she was feeling sad. We would spend the evening telling her how proud we were of the fact that she was a good friend, and we would talk about what her friend was feeling and how she was a part of the solution to making him or her feel better. You could see the sense of pride and confidence she got from these discussions, and it made me want to cry knowing that our little girl was growing into this amazingly empathetic person.

Recently though, things seem to be growing more turbulent in the world of the three year old girls in her class. Her teachers mentioned that our daughter got her feelings hurt when one of her pals told her she wasn’t her best friend anymore. On another occasion, she and a classmate told a friend that they were best friends and that the little girl couldn’t be and couldn’t play their game. I just kept asking my husband how this was already happening. How were they playing the best friend game at only three years of age? And how do we stop it?

Ideas to Help Lead Discussions About Friendship

Recognizing that this phase of friendship baiting is something that doesn’t seem to be going away, he and I have been trying to add projects and discussions into our evenings to facilitate a healthy dialogue with our daughter about the ills of exclusivity.

She has been learning about her body at school and has really enjoyed discovering how things work. So we talk about how her heart pumps blood through her body giving her the energy to move, but that it also stores her love and sends it to her hands and her lips so she can do kind deeds and use caring words. One thing I keep emphasizing with her is that we are so proud of her BIG heart. This weekend, we cut an oversized heart out of construction paper and wrote her name in big letters on the top. We then filled the heart with the names of all of her classmates and friends and discussed how she has room in her heart to love and include everyone. We also talked about how lonely her heart would be if she only had one best friend and how her heart was so big that it was meant to be shared with more than just one person.

I have also been trying to talk more about my friendships. This week, I opened the computer and showed her pictures of my friends. I went through photographs of me with my friends and told her about how we met and where they lived and what that friend added to my life. We talked about the fact that, because we are all good at different things, it made having lots of friends really special because I learn something unique from each of them. We followed that discussion with what she loves about her friends at school. It was a bit like pulling teeth, but eventually we discovered that one friend likes to dance and one friend has a two hearts to fit lots of love in her body. So, it wasn’t exactly based in reality, but she got the idea!

Each and every day, I wake up trying to be a better person for my children. I will never be able to completely rid myself of my faults, but my goal as a parent is not to pass them on. While we take steps backwards at times, we keep moving forward on this journey in parenting with the goal of raising empathetic children.


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