Like most parents I often use the phrase, “You’ll get to do that when you’re older.” After putting my son to bed the other night, however, a revelation in the art of empathy made me rethink my parenting strategy. As a result, I will use that line a whole lot less–maybe never again.
My 5-year-old son was up to his usual “I don’t want to go to bed” shenanigans. Despite being perturbed, I remembered some of my own advice and decided to take it: Just tell him the truth.
So, I did.
“You know what? Mommy doesn’t want to brush your teeth or take you up to bed at all,” I admitted to him. Stopped in his impish tracks, he looked at me with wide eyes. Having his full attention, of course, I started to brush his teeth.
Feeling like I was onto something, I continued. “Actually, I’d rather be working on my business or making art, but society is an interconnected web of human relationships. Because of that, I have to put you to bed. I have to do this because I love you and want you to get enough sleep and be healthy. You see, even when you’re an adult–like me–you still won’t get to do whatever you want, all-the-time. We have to focus on what’s important, though, like being a good human being. “Good” means caring about all of those connections between people and being responsible for your own role in the grand scheme of things.”
By then, his teeth were brushed, and he was downing his last drink of water for the night. On our way up to his bedroom, he peppered me with question after question to clarify his understanding of the paradigm-crushing piece of news that I had just dropped in his lap. Mommy doesn’t like having to put him to bed?! What a mind-blowing concept that was for him (or at least that was the impression I got from the look on his adorable, little face)! Apparently, he had always believed that I reveled in making him miserable. Well, that’s what I get for letting him watch shows with “good” and “bad” guys in them?
Without a doubt, that was a lesson in empathy that he will not soon forget. Up until then, he had seen the world through a black and white lens. I could just imagine him thinking, “Childhood sucks, but when I’m an adult I will be king!” No, real life is much more complex than that. We are all a lot more alike than we care to admit: a realization he will come to in due time. He will also learn that it is easier to justify our own bad behavior when the other person (Mommy, in this example) is the “bad guy,” making us “good” by default.
I wonder if THAT is the reason why our president thinks that he can have temper tantrums and hold his breath—and people’s paychecks—until he gets his way. Maybe, someone told him that he could do whatever he liked when he grew up, too. Makes you wonder.
So, think twice before telling your son that being an adult means doing whatever they want. The world can be a cold, hard place and needs more adults, who deeply understand and practice empathy. The future of our society depends on it.
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