We would do well to take one of our parenting proverbs from the Native Americans. In passing on wisdom to the next generation they would encourage their children not to judge anyone 'until you have walked two moons in his moccasins'. Our cultural equivalent might be 'to stand in someone else's shoes'. It neatly describes the quality of empathy - the ability to see a situation through someone else's eyes, to be understanding of their feelings and their needs. As parents it is good to try to encourage empathy in our children.
I discovered quickly that it can be hard work trying to teach our children to share and to think of others. Any thoughts of sitting back and enjoying a catch-up and coffee with another mum while the boys played happily together, sharing the contents of the box of cars, bricks or tub of Lego, generally remained a dream. There was a season of life when two of our children seemed to spend most of their time arguing about anything and everything. If my back was turned for a second there would be a blood curdling scream of 'It's not faaaair! He - or she - hit me/bit me/kicked me.' I frequently wondered where we had gone wrong to have children who seemed unable to play nicely together. My skills as a referee became honed to rival those of the refs in the Premier League: yellow card warnings and the occasional red card send-off were used to try to resolve disputes and to keep the peace.
If you are at a stage in parenting when an uninterrupted coffee is nothing more than a distant dream, stick with it. This important quality of empathy comes from the relationship we, or their primary carer, have with our children during these formative years when we are trying to encourage them to see things from another's perspective.
I have a friend who has five children and has somehow engendered this generous spirit into her children from a young age. She tells me there is no magic formula - but that she has simply consistently and continually tried to model this attitude in her own life, and then also encouraged her children to do the same. She has asked them questions like: 'How do you think Katy feels not getting the part in the play?' or, 'Do you think what's going on for Jack at home means he's not very happy? Maybe that's why he was unkind today?' or, slightly further afield, 'Can you imagine how cold it must be for Ian selling the Big Issue in the snow?' Whilst she may of course be blessed with compliant children, there is no doubt that her attitude has paid off. Like any family they have their moments, but overall they are some of the most kind and thoughtful children that I know. As our children get older we can spot opportunities to help them develop this quality. We can talk to them about difficult friendships in the playground, about issues of sibling rivalry, or ask them to consider the situations of those less fortunate than themselves, helping them to see things from another's point of view.
As parents, the task of reinforcing good behaviour can sometimes feel relentless, so in those rare moments when we get a glimpse of the fruit of our efforts, it is even more rewarding. I have shared a number of our family's mistakes; allow me now to share an encouragement. It was a freezing day in January when we went to visit family in Birmingham. On the way home we stopped for a pizza. The waitress came and took our order, but there was a mix up, and to his delight, one of our children ended up with not one but two giant pizzas. Not even he could eat both, and so we arranged to take it away in a box, planning to eat it in the car on the way home.
We put on coats and had just left the restaurant when my son stopped in his tracks and ran across the road. I saw him give the pizza to a homeless person who was sheltering from the cold in a doorway. And as he gave it to the man, I saw him smile, look the man in the eye and touch him on the arm. It was such a kind and generous gesture - and, at that particular moment in our parenting journey, such an encouragement for us to see that quality of empathy emerging in this child's life. At that moment I was proud of him ... and I think heaven smiled as well.