[Originally published in the Simple Parenting Column by The Dispatch]
Each day when I drop my 4-year-old daughter off at school, I kneel down to look her in the eyes. I tell her, “I love you, Sis. Tell me again, what makes you beautiful?” To which she replies, “How I love people and how I treat others.”
I kiss her and, before she runs off I remind her, “Look for the broken ones, look for the ones that may be struggling today, love them hard and be EXTRA kind today, okay?!”
Before I had my first child, Rosalie, I had many set notions of what good parenting looked like. Most of my ideas were based on what I saw on mommy blogs. From my internet research, I started judging good parenting based on whether a parent chooses to breastfeed, bottle feed, co-sleep, homeschool or send their child to public school, to name just a few of the contentious parenting topics that ricochet around the blogosphere. For the first two years of my parenting journey, I became obsessed with mastering all of the parenting methods I found online. It was tiring, relentless, and I often felt as though I was just touching the surface of what “good parenting” actually was.
All of these judgments on parenting began to shift after I gave birth to my son, Elias, who is now two years old. Seven weeks after he was born, I held my infant son in my arms watching him nearly bleed to death due to complications of an undiagnosed rare disease. The week that followed changed everything for me when it came to my perspective on parenting, and even life. I would hold him at night so that he could sleep comfortably while connected to all of the IVs and machines, and while he aid peacefully in my arms my mind ran through all of the “good parenting” measures I had learned and practiced on Rosalie. I thought about how none of that mattered anymore. In that momen, I still was not sure if my son would survive, and I thought to myself “If he did live one more day, or even ten years, would it honestly matter whether he was breastfed, bottle feed, co-slept, homeschooled or sent to public school?”
This forced me to ask the questions. “If Elias lived through childhood, what type of childhood do I want for him and Rosalie?” “What does good parenting look like now?” “How am I going to raise my children so they don’t turn out to be selfis ouchebags who expect perfectly-prepped school lunches in the shape of panda bears and care more about how they dress than how they act?”
In the two years since those life-changing nights, I have shifted my idea of what makes for good parenting. Instead of emphasizing the external, I now believe that good parenting is empathetic parenting, which encourages emotional development that will inevitably produce kindness, grace, and unconditional love.
A 2002 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology that investigated the connection between how much a parent invested in a child, and how competent a child was, found that how emotionally involved a parent is truly does matter. If we care about our children, our children are more likely to care about others. So we can’t be parenting from the sidelines or distracting ourselves with the unimportant flash of whatever’s buzzworthy as the moment. Empathy starts with us.
One way that I approach teaching empathy to my children is by teaching Rosalie and Elias to look outside themselves for people (mostly kids) that may be having a hard time. I often tell Rosalie that, “people who are hurting will often hurt people.” I reinforce over and over that it’s not our job to judge another's actions, but it is our job to love them deeply regardless. My hope for them as they grow into this idea is that they will have the ability to see people with their eyes closed. The more I teach my children empathy and kindness the more empowered they will be to look past the hurt of others and to intervene with love.
There is no blog, book, or guru that has all of the answers when it comes to parenting, and I am not a perfect parent, but I truly believe the simpler we make the art of parenting, the better the outcomes will be. The more we focus on sowing seeds of kindness and empathy, the closer we’ll get to giving our kids a better future. Every lesson we teach our children is also a lesson for us. Every day we, too, have the opportunity to look up and notice the world around us, notice the real live people in front of us.
Look for the broken ones.