I am so thankful to be part of a generation of adults that aims to build empathy in children. Most of our kids need to learn how to identify with someone’s struggles and sorrows. They need to learn to jump in, speak up, and give life.
But some kids internalize too much.
They all-too-easily feel all of the pain and heartache; they shoulder the burdens of the world. They need to learn how to process and respond to negative emotions in a healthy and biblical way. These kiddos have a natural inclination toward empathy – maybe even a God-given gift of empathy – they just need to grow in wisdom.
Christians walk in the light of both Galations 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” and Galations 6:5 “…for each one should carry his own load.” It takes discernment to know when – and what – to carry for another person, and when to help a friend bear up under his own load. (I first grasped this concept from Cloud and Townsend’s life-changing book, Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life.)
How do we help a child who unnecessarily feels responsible for another person’s bad feelings or bad behavior?
Here’s one idea…
It was late afternoon.
I was cranky and hungry.
The kids had just shared a huge bowl of buttery popcorn while watching a summer afternoon movie. I took the quiet minute to fix myself some apple slices, pub cheese, and crackers. I placed it on the table next to my book, sat down with a sigh of relief, and savored a bite.
On cue, the toddler released a high pitch scream from the other room – as if a herd of rhinos were kidnapping him. While I jumped up to save the day (there were 0 rhinos), one adorable four-year-old girl took my place at the dining room table.
When I returned crankier and hungrier than ever, she was dragging a cracker luxuriously through the pub cheese. She tipped her chin up and dramatically descended the cheesy cracker into her mouth. Ironically, she was dressed up in her pink satin princess dress, complete with a beautiful tiara.
The poor girl had no idea that the scene was about to change dramatically.
Evil Queen Mother, enter stage right: “Hey, that’s my snack!” I snapped. “You kids just had your snack! This is MY snack! Please go play somewhere else.”
She froze, mouth still open, cracker suspended in the air. As quick as a wink, she removed the cracker from her mouth and skittered away.
The other kids who had gathered, presumably in hopes of their own turn at the pub cheese, skittered away just as quickly.
I sat down with a sigh of remorse.
The abandoned cracker was propped awkwardly in the tub of cheese, looking surprised at its simple twist of fate.
I ate my snack in high dudgeon and unusual quiet.
After I swirled the last cracker around the bottom of the pub cheese container, I went outside to make peace with my sweet daughter.
She was now dressed up as cowgirl, leading her pink scooter-horse to its stall. Happy as a lark, she had moved on from the incident.
I sat down on the porch swing and my 7-year old son climbed up beside me, snuggling close.
“I”m sorry, Mom,” he sniffled.
“Sorry for what?” I asked, ruffling his hair.
“I’m sorry for what happened in there. Sorry that you don’t get to eat enough snacks. We kids eat so many sacks, but I want you to eat all of the snacks.” He cried big, unashamed tears.
“Oh, my sweet tenderhearted boy,” I said. “I appreciate that you care about me, but I need you to know that this is not your fault. It’s my own responsibility to feed and take care of myself throughout the day. I got too hungry and I let my crankiness take over. My angry response toward Audrey was wrong.”
He sniffed a big old sniff and lay his head against me, burdened.
“You know,” I added, “My snack-fit had nothing to do with you. You didn’t eat my snack. I didn’t yell at you. And you certainly don’t need to feel badly or to apologize.
There were bad feelings swirling around in there, but you don’t have to take them. Just because other people are mad or sad doesn’t mean that you have to take those bad feelings on as your own burden.”
“Really?” he asked, wiping a tear off his cheek.
“Really.” I answered.
We swung back and forth for a few minutes, thinking.
Then I got an idea. “As you get older,” I began, “You’ll learn how to tell the difference between bad feelings that are your responsibility and the ones that aren’t.
It’s kind of like getting your luggage from the baggage claim area at the airport.
You get off your plane and you have to get your luggage from that big conveyor belt, right? Think about all of those suitcases that are rolling by! Black ones, blue ones, red ones. Big, little. It’s important that we know what our own baggage looks like so we can take responsibility for it and carry it home. But we don’t take the other people’s bags, do we?
Bad feelings are kind of like luggage: some are yours to carry, others aren’t. Sometimes you do need to take responsibility for bad feelings, maybe you need to apologize or to care for someone in a special way. But other times, you do not. You’ll grow in wisdom, learning how to discern the burdens that God wants you to carry.”
By now, that sweet boy was sitting up tall, almost ready to hop off the swing and return to his bike.
I took two more minutes to add,
“What would we do if we were at the baggage claim area and we saw someone who couldn’t lift his bag off the conveyor belt and get it into his car? We would help him, wouldn’t we? Sometimes, we are called to help people figure out how to carry the burdens of life, we come alongside them and help them in many different ways. I think you’ll be the type of friend who helps others to grow stronger and wiser so they can live well.”
I could tell: this particular burden was lifted. He smiled at me, all toothless and cute, and ran off to play.
This is just one little conversation in an ongoing discovery. How do you help your child to understand empathy, boundaries, and compassionate love? I’d love to know.