Are You Ok? – Helping Kids Find Empathy and Compassion.

Teaching our children empathy and compassion

He is howling, it’s what he does when something goes wrong.

Howling like his arms are broken.

It’s such a common sound these days that I don’t rush in to find out if there are broken bones involved. I am pretty sure there isn’t.

“Are you ok?” I hear her ask him.
“No!” is his reply in between howls.
“Would you like a super cuddle?”

And then suddenly the howling stops, and that worries me so I drop what I am doing and go in to see exactly what is going on.

I find the four year old boy with tear stained cheeks being hugged to death by his big sister. Both of them, intertwined on the ground, giggling.

“He’s ok now Mum” she tells me “it was just an accident and I super cuddled it better.”

And that’s almost enough to have me howling.

I don’t make my children say sorry when they upset or hurt someone or make a mistake. I don’t feel that a prompted “sorry” teaches my children anything positive and I don’t believe hearing that “sorry” makes much of a difference either. In this house, arguments and mistakes are usually more complicated than a simple sorry can address.

When someone requests that a child say they are sorry, often they encourage them to say something they don’t really understand or mean. Expecting a child to say sorry can be upsetting and confusing, especially if they don’t feel they did anything wrong. Often the hurt party is also expected to ‘get over it’ as soon as the sorry is offered when they may still have feelings and issues that they feel need to be resolved.

When you are ‘in the moment’, when everyone is upset and angry, that is the time to offer comfort to those who are upset (which is just as often the child who made the mistake, they deserve your love and comforting also) and to model compassion and empathy. It is not the time to lecture, judge or force a “sorry”.

So I don’t make my kids say sorry, but I do want them to learn empathy and compassion and to show they care for others and can honestly show they are sorry when they make a mistake.

These concepts are hard. They are hard for adults, difficult for older children, and just about impossible for preschoolers.

For preschoolers all I do is model compassion and empathy. I try to put into words what everyone might be feeling, sometimes that involves me saying sorry, sometimes it doesn’t. I show care and compassion through my words and actions but I don’t expect even my four year old to manage these things most of the time. But as my girls have grown older the idea of restitution has become more appropriate.

Restitution – making it right, showing you are sorry, showing you care. For me this is a way to show empathy, compassion and love.

Carrie at The Parenting Passageway writes beautifully on the subject of restitution with many practical examples of how it can work with children (search for ‘restitution’ on her site and you’ll find lots more great references). This is where I first came across the idea of restitution and it really felt right to me. I’ve read many of her posts on the subject and wondered how I could encourage it here a The Pickle Farm.

I’ll be honest… the idea of drawing a picture for someone you upset is a lovely, but I’m yet to find a way to slow down our crazy lives enough to allow for these kinds of moments. I know that I ‘set the tone for my home’ and so my children learn these things from me, but I forget, I am tired and lazy and…. and I need to do better, I will do better.

But there are other ways to show you care, to make restitution.

Recently we’ve been talking about looking after the people we care about. That if someone is hurt or upset, even if we didn’t cause it, even if we accidentally caused it, even if we made a mistake and caused it, even if we were angry and caused it…. because we care about them we ask them if they are ok. Sometimes we can ask right then, when they are upset. Sometimes we need to wait until we feel less angry or upset ourselves and then ask them if they are ok. It doesn’t matter… the important thing is we check that the people we care about are ok.

This simple concept seems to have turned on a light in my girls. Suddenly they seem to have found compassion and are able to build on that. Often they ask if you are ok and then offer something else to help ‘make it right’. A ‘super cuddle’ is a common offering, or a suggestion to come and play. It’s not earth shattering, big things, it’s just a little offering of love and compassion.

I am not sure why this seemed so out of reach before now. Perhaps it is because my girls are almost 8, and are moving well and truly out of the young child phase of self centeredness. Or perhaps it is because there is no judge, jury and executioner involved. I am not stepping in and declaring someone right or wrong. No one feels like they are being blamed, or shamed so they are now more able to offer love, not guilt, but love.

It has worked wonders for sibling relationships. Sure there are still fights (lots of fights), but the girls are much quicker to realise when a simple ‘are you ok’ will make things better. And even Morgan is managing to ask on occasion and, more importantly, is more able to accept the girls’ offerings of restitution. This means they able to work things out themselves more often.

It makes my heart sing to hear them ask each other if they are ok. I don’t care how many mistakes they make, how many times they hurt each other, as long as they take steps to reconnect and make it better afterwards.

Do you encourage your kids to make restitution?
If so what do you do to make it better?
How do you encourage empathy and compassion?

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Read the comments or scroll down to add your own:

  1. says

    Hi Kate,
    This is my first visit to your blog and I am glad I did! It seems that I am trying to parent in a similar way to yours… I don’t like forced apologies, and I try to model empathy and compassion. My eldest is only 3 so we are really only at the naming of feelings stage, and we talk about what we can do to feel better when things are a bit grim, which is quite often!
    Great post, I will be back!

  2. Genevieve says

    I just came across your website – and after reading this post – I must say – you are absolutely right. A simple sorry means nothing if there is no sympathy behind it or a real lack of concern. In my household – if a fight goes beyond manageable between my kids, I split them up and then one on one talk to them about what happened and why. Very often they have different stories, different point of views, but after explaining to each of them why the other was upset, or why the reaction happened, they often get it and will work it out between themselves afterwards. My kids are 6 and 8. It is tiring sometimes, but I feel that by knowing how the other was feeling and why -they can then figure how to “fix” things. I like the idea of the “are you OK” – it makes sense. Way to GO!

    • katef says

      Sometimes it can feel like you are fighting a loosing battle can’t it…. which was why I was so excited to hear my kids beginning to ask each other how they feel, without me having to step in all the time! It can only get better from here right?

  3. says

    Great post and lots of food for thought. My littlies are very young (6 & 30 months) but there have already been occasions with my toddler where she’s hurt her baby sister or hit hubby and I. I have heard about the idea of teaching empathy before and so whilst I do urge her to say, “Sorry”, it’s usually only after I’ve explained that what she’s done has hurt the person she has done it to. I also tend to ask her why to see if she has a reason. Most of the time, she’s needed a few minutes to process that before she’s ready to say, “Sorry”. Your post has me thinking a bit more about what we do and whether there is a better way. Thanks.

    • katef says

      I don’t force my children to say thank you, or please, or sorry. I teach them to be grateful, polite and compassionate but not by making them say things that they don’t understand or don’t mean. :)

      • Norton says

        We make an effort to explain to the littlies afterwards if they are too young to understand, but there is a place for associating the moment with an action. I know forcing them to say things they don’t understand or don’t mean may be counterproductive, but that’s why we as parents are there, to provide guidance. Nothing wrong with a simple act of common courtesy or manners. Say sorry (or thank you) first, fill in the blanks later. It’s also possible the kid’s convictions would be so strong that s/he will never say sorry ever again because they believe they are in the right all the time. Or do some just end up that way as adults? ;)

        Afterall, manners is in a lot of ways about being “fake” and “insincere”. However I would shudder to think if we brought up our kids with complete disregard for others and not having to learn to take responsibility just because they would not mean it.

        If my kid shoved another stranger’s kid to the ground, I don’t think I can say nothing right there and then. Even if my kid learns from the interaction in her own time afterwards, I feel there is still an adult responsibility to not just assume the other kid will “get over it” without further interaction or remorse – whether sincerely or otherwise – from mine. Actually this example is the reverse of what happened in real life – my two year old got shoved heavily by another older kid.

        With strangers, you don’t necessarily get a second chance to right a “wrong”. For all you know, your little “terror” just scarred someone else’s kid and the poor parents have no idea at all what caused it.

        Anyway, I feel if you need to interact with the world, you also need to have a sense of courtesy and responsibility for your actions. Mind you, I come across a lot of people who have utter disregard for others all the time. I may like to think my kid’s actions have no bearing whatsoever on a stranger, but that would be a very self-centric point of view, and if I may say so, a very selfish one as well.

  4. says

    Just caught up with this one. Food for thought about not getting them to say sorry – especially for me as so far I’ve just been trying to train my husband to say sorry … his disciplined German upbringing seemed to leave it out and he thinks Australians are just constantly saying sorry and polite little phrases with no meaning behind them … and perhaps he is at least somewhat right. What you say makes plenty of sense. Will have a rethink!

    Oh and “I supercuddled it better” is so beautiful!!!

    • katef says

      Your husband has a really interesting point of view!
      I often find I feel obliged to get my kids to say a hasty sorry, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with explaining that saying things like sorry can help diffuse a situation or make someone else feel better. I just feel like forcing a child to say sorry and leaving it at that doesn’t accomplish much…

  5. says

    Kate, this is a great post. You raise some really great points. So often we use words that we don’t really understand or mean, and sorry is one of them. I was always told , “say it like you mean it”… So often I think we use it too much and too flippantly. I love your tools and ideas about teaching empathy. This post is a really wonderful and practical. thanks x

    • katef says

      Yes, there is a big difference between saying sorry when you understand what has happened and really mean it, and when you are just saying it because it is expected….

  6. says

    I like your take on this, and the thought that has gone into it. Interesting viewpoint. We do get our kids to say Sorry but also to understand why (without turning every event into a scolding or a lecture). Manners are important because they are a shorthand signalling empathy. Insincere or fake sorrys don’t count.

  7. says

    Restitution is a new theme for me, but I’m inspired by your words – thank you. Saying an un-heartfelt sorry, like most quick fixes, doesn’t often improve the situation. I like the idea of offering care and compassion, rather than judgement, especially in the heat of the moment.