Positive Discipline Fosters Empathy and Sympathy
Positive discipline strategies can help your child understand the consequences of misbehavior while encouraging sympathy and empathy.
Researchers studying moral development have found that parents who are supportive yet insistent on appropriate behavior generally see better behavior in their children, including sympathy and empathy, at home, with friends, and at school. In contrast, parents who rely only on physical punishment and threats end up with lower sympathy levels in their children.
When children misbehave, an effective disciplinary strategy is to focus on how their behavior has affected someone else.
- Call attention to the insensitive or uncaring behavior. Tell your child when her behavior is inappropriate or mean, and be specific. "Storming away from Mommy and screaming when she asks you to put down the doll makes Mommy upset and does not allow you to play longer."
- Express and explain your disapproval. These disciplinary moments are opportunities to make sure your child understands exactly why you disapprove of her action and why you expect something different.
- Ask your child, "How would you feel?" Have your child put herself in the other person's shoes. Prompt your child to label emotions. The misbehavior may have been caused by another emotion your child was feeling.
- Teach your child to recognize the consequences of her behavior. "When you pushed Ann off the slide, she hurt her knee. She went home because she thought you didn't want to play with her."
- Praise your child when she does express empathic or sympathetic behavior. Pointing out the big effects of small gestures, such as how happy the drawing made Daddy feel, or how much fun she and her friend had when they shared a toy, is a simple way to encourage unselfish acts.
How would this feel if it happened to you?
One of the best ways to prompt empathy and sympathy is to take the other person's side. If your child and a sibling or friend are arguing about sharing a toy or inviting someone to play, these are perfect opportunities for some role-swapping. Ask your child to think about what the other person is saying, feeling, and thinking and to respond as if she were that person. Puppets can be a great way to practice with younger children. Adopting someone else's perspective does not need to be reserved for conflicts. Children can benefit from imagining themselves in someone else's shoes in many different situations: the new kid in their class, a disabled person trying to cross the street, a neighbor who needs help, or a friend whose feelings were hurt. "How would you feel if this happened to you?" is a question that cannot be asked too often!
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