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Food 4 Thought, Parenting

Commentary: Does Parental Empathy Have a Cost?

I am intrigued by a research study finding that empathetic parents of adolescents were psychologically strong but paying a price physically; while the adolescents were doing well on both fronts. This is getting some attention in the media as news, but is it really new information?

The study says, “responding empathically often necessitates transcending one’s own point of view and being nonreactive to whatever is encountered…To accomplish this, parents may suppress their own feelings in order to help their children feel safe or understood…Emotional suppression is known to increase physiological responses to stressors.”

Yes, I agree completely! Let’s make these abstract concepts more real with a very personal and concrete example. My 4-year old is seriously upset because the ballet slippers she so desperately wants are not available in her size. We’ve been down this road before, and it could get ugly. The whining is picking up speed, appeals to logic are going unheard. Freeze frame, here I give you a rare uncensored glimpse of what actually goes on in my mind… ”Noooooo, not again, what the f***! They are just slippers, she doesn’t appreciate all that she has, who cares about slippers anyway… bribe her, threaten punishment, walk away, no then she’ll run after you screaming, aaahhhhhh…”

Some iteration of this flashes through in a matter of seconds, I won’t lie sometimes some of this comes out, but if I can pull it together, I won’t say any of that because the truth is it’s all useless. Instead I’ll kneel down and say, “Hey, let’s talk for a sec, you’ve been really good about waiting for your slippers and I know you were so excited about it, it’s terrible they don’t have your size and now you have to wait more. I can see you’re upset and frustrated, what can we do?” And hope with all my might, something comes out of her mouth that I can work with.

Why go through all this emotional censoring? Simple, I know that when I am upset, angry, sad or frustrated, the very last thing I want is someone else getting pissy with me because I feel the way I feel. That just makes it exponentially worse. What’s helpful is someone who can hold the space for my feelings until I’m able to work through them. It’s no different with kids or adolescents; they just need a little more guidance in the process.

Here is the kicker – it is 100 times easier to say exactly what I feel, exert parental force, and unleash my own frustration to harness the situation by any means. It takes tremendous will power, practice and inner-strength to not react and be thoughtful about what I say and do, giving my best shot at empathy. The irony is that I am more emotionally exhausted when I hold it together and remain externally calm and collected than when I let out my own adult tantrum to rival and squelch that of any child’s.

So it comes as absolutely no surprise to me that being (or striving to be) an empathetic parent is akin to living with chronic stress – it takes a toll on the body, even if psychologically I am riding high.

This all brings home a very powerful point, and something I’ve been struggling with. The more you care for others, the more you must invest in and make space for yourself. Being emotionally supportive of others is rewarding, but there is a cost to suppressing your own feelings (regardless of what they are). There is a two-fold balancing force, 1. acknowledging and processing your own feelings AND 2. doing things that re-energize you. Otherwise, the sad truth is that the constant care of others with no equal self-care will only end in burn out, sooner or later, inside or outside.

Takeaway (as much for you as for me) – if you want to be good to your kids, take care of yourself. Like they tell you on the plane, put your oxygen mask on first and then help the kid next to you. Because frankly, you’re useless if you’ve conked out.

Lastly, I believe something critical is left out of the research because it is a long-term implication – the impact and importance of modeling. Kids are their parent’s constant reflection. Modeling, or teaching by doing, is a force to be reckoned with. Give the kids short and abrupt NO’s and that is what you will get in return. The things kids do most consistently is what they see done around them. Some of these behaviors are easy to catch and parents can adjust accordingly. Yet, there are behaviors that won’t be as obvious until the kids get to be adults themselves – like self-care. To bring it all full-circle, empathetic parents who are not invested in their own self-care are by default neglecting to teach their children the importance of caring for themselves as future adults.

So while mastering the empathy bit may be the obvious work for many of us parents, perhaps the even greater challenge is to model healthy self-care by putting the mask on first.

Parenting, Urban Making

The Making of Dragon Eggs

Or giant papier-mâché Easter eggs…

Rounded corner dragon eggsThis project is simple and low-maintenance – perfect for my 3 & 5 year-old children, and is easily adjustable for younger and older kids. These eggs are easily fancied up, with a smoother finish, stenciled-on shapes, dots, stripes etc. My goal was simply to have an activity for the kids with a final project that was 90% their doing – check. I also like projects that don’t entail waste – this one is great in that department except one piece that I’d love to find a way around, just haven’t figured it out yet.

Below are the supplies list, instructions, and a short personal reflection…

Supplies

  • small balloons – the one non-eco-friendly element 🙁
  • newspaper – any thin paper, like tissue paper will work
  • all purpose flour – or whatever you have, except whole wheat, I’ve read it can be problematic
  • warm water
  • any paint – we used good tempera, love that it washes or rinses off quick and easy
  • paint brushes – the art kind, not paint the walls kind
  • a decent amount of rags or kitchen towels and water for clean-up

Here’s the How To…

  1. Paper Shredding – dig out some newspaper from the recycle bin and tear them into strips. Try to go with the grain and teach the kids which way this is – otherwise the pieces can become miniscule. Tear these long strips in half a couple times. For reference you’re trying for pieces of paper about the size of the child’s hand, too much larger and it becomes hard to work with.
  2. Foundation – blow up the balloons to the size and shape your little ones like. I saved my lungs by using our bike tire pump. If I’d been able to find the balloon pump, that would have been handy too.
  3. Prep the Paste – the golden recipe is just good old flour and warm water. For 10 medium-sized eggs, we used around 3 cups of flour and a bit more water than that. Pour a little warm water into the flour, stir, pour more water, stir…until you reach a consistency you like. I prefer a little on the thicker side, something along the lines of a creamy soup. At first everyone wants to mix, however this quickly loses its appeal. Now is the time to pull out the immersion blender and voilá, everyone’s back to work AND those pesky lumps are gone. Any small blender|agitator will do, but good old stirring works too!
  4. IMG_0648Dressing the eggs – at this point the idea is to get the paper and balloon wet with paste and sticking together with the paper ultimately coating and fully covering the ballon. There are many ways to accomplish this, I savored the thought of dainty paint brushes delicately applying the paste to the paper and then to the balloon – that’s not how it went down in my house. Fingers and scooped hands were the preferred method of applying the nice warm goopy stuff to the paper and eventually to the balloon. IF possible leave the knot of the balloon exposed and conserve a little paste for patching up holes later on.
  5. Drying – at least overnight, if the little ones were especially liberal with the paste, possibly more. It helps to turn the eggs at least once.
  6. Removing the balloon – when they are dry, they are considerably harder than when you started. Give the balloon knot a gentle tug and pierce it – it will make a fun crackling and hissing sound as the air is released and it separates from the “egg shell.” Hang on to the knot and very gently wiggle it out of the hole. If your knot was covered, take your best guess at where it is and with good scissors perform a small operation to expose it. Add a piece of the shredded paper and paste to cover the hole and let dry. There was no patience for more drying in my home, the holes stayed so the egg’s inhabitants could find their way out.
  7. IMG_0658Painting, finally! This one is self-explanatory. One of my favorite parts about using paint is that we have only the basic colors – black, white, red, blue and yellow. I always ask what color they want to paint with and they invariably name a color that we’ll need to make. It’s their job to try and make that color. They get some interesting mixes, but I think it’s a fun and valuable lesson.
  8. Let the paint dry and your dragon | dinosaur | ostrich | giant Easter eggs are ready for play!

Children learn pretty quickly that these are not intended for throwing or rough play, but similar to the old fashioned real eggs that get painted in school, these are meant to be cared for and are best suited for a lively game of hide and seek.

If these are used for an Easter egg hunt many kids are accustomed to the plastic eggs with something inside and may be disappointed that these are not carrying any goodies. However, having made them and knowing there is nothing to open, my little one, had no such expectation and were equally satisfied with the eggs they found – big or small – painted or treat filled.

Sustainability Note – Once these eggs get their fair wear (and we do hide them for months), I can happily toss them into my compost bin. The balloon base is the only thorn in my side.

Reflections…

This is a skill development project as much for my kids as it is for me. While they are practicing manual dexterity, learning about the glue properties of flour and water and how it feels on your skin, figuring out how to make colors, and generally having fun – I am building my ability to let them make their own art without hovering, fixing, or micro-managing along the way.

polaroid dragon eggsMany of the balloons were not completely covered in paste and paper, and later many were not completely coated in paint. Though at first I tried in vain to point this out in hopes one of the two workers would fix it, no one cared but me, and that was my lesson. We were not trying to make Fabergé eggs, yet I desperately wanted the paper to lay flat, for them to use less paste, for the whole ballon to be equally covered and on and on. Eventually, I let go and focused on my own egg where I could happily apply all my compulsions, and then eventually that didn’t need to be perfect either. Take-away message: remember what you are really trying to do – create a fun, learning, shared experience. 

Inspiration came from…Not MarthaJumbo Paper Mache Eggs, and Ultimate Paper Maché.