Friday, January 22, 2021

From Enemy to Empathy


I taught for many years in a Lutheran elementary school, and one of the challenges was inappropriate language. We wanted children to learn more effective ways of communicating anger or frustration, but once a child picked up a four-letter-friend, it was hard to make a change. Parents would sometimes complain that their child brought the word home, but some soul searching often would reveal the opposite was true.


Why do children learn so quickly the vocabulary we don’t want them to remember? The reason probably has to do with the emotions behind the word. Children pay close attention to what we do when we are angry, hurt, surprised, or afraid. This intense observation is because children are working to regulate these strong emotions. Their brains are wired to memorize and practice these reactions to learn how to use emotions successfully.


This learning method works well when we have the restraint to respond to strong emotions by bringing them down a step. For instance, instead of reacting in anger to an event, we express frustration. When we do this, we teach our children to learn more subtle emotional responses. We are teaching emotional literacy. These literacy skills help a child use emotions for learning, analyzing, communicating, and socially interacting. Learning emotional literacy also keeps a child from being used by their feelings. When children bounce around from anger to fear, they do not work and play well with others. Those who cannot regulate strong emotions are more likely to be victims of misinformation. A strong emotional reaction prevents us from logically analyzing information or its source. For children, strong emotions prevent them from resolving conflict in positive ways.


When children see a strong emotional reaction, it may leave them puzzled. Copying and practicing this behavior is one way for a child to learn to understand it. That is how things travel from home to the school playground.


In this highly divisive political climate, it is good for us to remember this tendency for children to pay attention to how we express strong emotions. The issues are important, and if our children are old enough to understand, we should discuss these things with them. However, our reactions do not escape the notice of even our younger children, and if they do not understand the situation, they are likely to misunderstand the emotional response.


Here are some simple suggestions for navigating the current political climate:


Bring it down a notch. Take a deep breath before reacting to what you read or hear. Remind yourself that God reigns over what happens in the world. Your children will see this and learn that when we think best when we are calm.


Say “no” to name-calling and assumptions. When children argue, they often resort to calling each other names or using phrases like “you just want to . . . “ This clouds the argument and makes reconciliation very difficult. In any dispute or conflict, we need to treat the opposing side as human beings loved by God.


Fight the “enemy.” By this, I mean we should fight the idea of an enemy. Just as children are fascinated by monsters, dragons, and dinosaurs, creating an enemy makes sense to them. This tendency to create enemies harms their interaction with peers. When children begin to understand a big concept like “enemy,” they overuse it, and suddenly their friend becomes their enemy. At this point, conflict digs in its heels.


Even if children do not understand conservative vs. liberal, they are still watching and learning from how we react. In this time of their development, they need to practice empathy and regulation. When we practice empathy we are not agreeing to the opposite political view, but we are recognizing each other's humanity, frailty, and value. Teach this to your children!


Look at this scriptural lesson on conflict resolution:


If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. Matthew 18:15


This process requires calm emotions and empathy, and the result is brotherhood. We may not reach an agreement on political matters, but we should never lose sight of brotherhood. This lesson is a powerful one to teach our children, and we do that best by modeling it for them.