I want help around the house. I need help. I have three kids age 6 and under—all girls–and they generate a lot of messes.
When my oldest got to be about 4, I started making chore charts. I hung up Montessori-style signs around the house indicating that beds needed to be made and clothes needed to be put in the hamper. We did stickers and M&Ms and bought prizes to be doled out on the completion of said sticker charts. Nothing.
I was doing the laundry or dishes or cleaning something one day, and my preschooler asked me why I was in a bad mood. I let loose a Game of Thrones death-scene-worthy monologue: “I am tired of being the only one who has to clean, Maisie. You and your sisters get to play and have fun and get all these toys out, and then I am stuck with the mess. I am on Team Work all by myself, and you guys are all on Team Fun. I just wish you could spend a little time on Team Work with me so that we could all have time for fun.” She stared for a bit and then skipped away, which is exactly the response I expected.
But I didn’t expect what happened after that.
Slowly and sporadically, I started getting help. Without asking for it. Without nagging them. We would finish dinner, and my pint-sized oldest child would pull her pink bathroom stool up to the sink to help me with dishes. When I got out clean laundry, the girls would drop their toys to come over and help me sort, and then we all traipsed upstairs to put the clothes away. Every now and then, Maisie will want to lead me upstairs with my eyes closed so she can reveal a completely clean room to me. One time, they even went into the master bedroom and cleaned it up, even making the bed.
The thing is, my kids are not special at all. They are like any other kids. They don’t like cleaning and they don’t want to take those few extra seconds to put things away. But what I did in that moment when I spewed out the analogy about Team Fun and Team Work was help them empathize with me in a way that they understood, and that was key.
Children emerge from the womb as perfect narcissists, and it doesn’t get better on it’s own. Anyone who has endured the terrible twos knows that people don’t come by empathy naturally. There are five ways you can help teach empathy to your kids:
- Meet your child’s emotional needs and help them work through distress. Kids who are secure in their relationship with their caregiver are more likely to be empathetic toward others. This is accomplished by acknowledging their feelings and helping them cope with negative emotions.
- Treat your child as an individual with a mind of their own. Kids understand way more than we assume. Talk to your child about their thoughts and behaviors and how the two influence each other.
- Model and introduce sympathetic feelings for other people. Point out situations where someone may be feeling something different than your child and ask them to imagine how that person feels. It could be a positive or negative emotion. You can do this with real people, books, cartoons, or by looking through photos with your child. You can also do this by vocalizing what you are feeling at any given time instead of just acting on the emotion.
- Help kids figure out what they have in common with others. By pointing out similarities with other people, you can teach your child to look for similarities, which leads to empathy.
- Teach your kids about the empathy gap. This is a term researchers use for the problem of relating to someone in a vastly different state than we are. For example, if you’re “hangry” you might be taking it out on everyone around you, while a person who is full knows what hangry is and how awful they feel when they are extremely hungry, but may not empathize with you being so out of control at the moment.
The other aspect of my speech that worked was the fact that I gave my kids a choice. I was just mouthing off in frustration; I didn’t expect any help, so I didn’t give any ultimatums or promise any stickers, prizes or candy. There were no accusations or character assassination for those who didn’t help.
I learned about offering kids choices after reading How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, but I had kind of tucked that lesson away for future use. I didn’t think it would be something that would work when they were 6 and 3 years old. Turns out, they kind of love choices. If I ask if they want to make their beds or clean up their rooms, the tone of voice and the request is much different than when it’s an ultimatum. I do have to keep the choice reasonable—doing nothing is never an option—but when I give them choices, I get much more cooperation than when I don’t.
At the heart of all of this is just that—cooperation. I don’t want to fight my kids all day. I don’t have the stomach for it. I grew up in a house where screaming and threats were how everything got done, and I can’t do that. And honestly, what’s the point of even getting help if you have to fight for it tooth and nail? It’s still not making life any easier. When you work toward raising kids with empathy, you solve more problems than just the laundry. People with empathy don’t just walk by someone in need. They look outside of themselves and solve problems.
My goal in our home is that everyone works together and, to borrow from that impromptu speech in the living room, that we are all on the same team. Because at the end of the day, I want that way more than a load of folded laundry.