It’s Not All Mary Poppins

too much empathy

Nissa, trotting along the hall, takes a small tumble and looks up, checking for response from any adults in the vicinity. Typical toddler behaviour.

And of course, my response is practiced. In situations like this, you don’t ask them how they’re feeling, you tell them. A beaming smile and a cheery comment shows the child this wasn’t a biggie, and they pop up and trundle happily on their way.

Except there’s a parent in door (not Nissa’s), who is in Nissa’s direct line of sight. A nice parent. A kind parent. A well-meaning parent. A parent who is about to annoy the heck out of me. She crumples with doting concern, her voice oozing pathos. “Oooo, sweetie, are you all riiiiight?

Great. So instead of my hearty “you-can-handle-this” message, Nissa’s getting the limp “oh-you-poor-delicate-flower” message. I wince and wait. It takes less than a second.

Nissa crumples into tears. Whyever not? She’s just been informed that’s what’s expected, and furthermore, been told that any tears will be enveloped with great swaths of time and attention. Having ensured the tears, the nuisance parent mom can now utter words of consolation. “There, there, little Nissa. You will be all right.”

Yes, she will. In fact, she was fine until you told her otherwise with all your ooey-gooey empathy. There is a time and a place for empathy. It is smart, however, if you don’t want to be knee-deep in tears all the damned time, to make sure that what you’re empathizing with is what the child’s actually feeling. In this case, the mom projected the tears into that pause between stimulus and response. When she looked up for adult response, Nissa wasn’t unhappy. She was surprised, certainly. But she hadn’t yet decided how to respond.

In that instance, why on earth wouldn’t you nudge them in the direction of cheerful resilience?

Meantime, the mom is still oozing, and Nissa is lapping it all up, her wails getting louder as mom’s fluttering reassurances continue.

Bah. Hustle out that door, woman, so Nissa can stop crying.

Thank you so much.

January 7, 2010 - Posted by | Nissa, parents, Peeve me, socializing, the dark side | ,


  1. You can be so grumpy. 😉 I love it.
    (And of course I agree yet again, but it’s getting a bit dull saying that every time.)

    I can be so grumpy. Not often with the kids, but … the parents? Whole ‘nuther story. 🙂

    Comment by Mwa | January 7, 2010 | Reply

    • Hey! I seem to have a parenting debate going on in the comments on my blog just now, mainly about computers, tv, and how much a two year old can grasp. Would love to hear your opinion if you would like to jump in. (Open invitation of course.)

      Comment by Mwa | January 9, 2010 | Reply

  2. Ha ha, thank you! I am not cold hearted, damn, it, but my response is oopsie-daisy, found a penny? Up we go! My girls do this to their friends too, makes me laugh. Or now they’ll fall or hurt themselves, and they’ll just get up and go, oopsy, it didn’t hurt.

    When they do hurt themselves, and I know it hurt, and I’ll hug them and kiss them, of course.

    Yes, the over-empathetic sorts sometimes do make you feel like you’re being hard-hearted when you don’t fall apart with concern over every little bump and tumble. But of course if it’s a real hurt, you’re appropriately concerned — you just don’t fall apart for tiny tumbles, and you expect your girls to be able to bounce back, too.

    In trying so hard to cushion their children, to protect them from tears and unhappiness, the super-soft-hearted create children who aren’t as resilient… in the end, the irony is they create children who cry more.

    Comment by Nat | January 7, 2010 | Reply

  3. I often run into that situation when we get an inexperienced supply teacher for the day, or when (joy of joys) we have a student, who is just learning all these things we gals have come to know. Funny, the children latch on right away to the fact that there is someone about who “doesn’t know the way things work”. And boy do they play on it. “Help me, oh new person, I simply cannot get my own snow pants on, or put on my coat, or my boots…”

    As for the getting hurt thing, I usually instruct my students in your fashion and tell them that the children need reassurance and will benefit from our affirmation, not our fear. Use statements, rather than questions. “You ARE alright!” (with a smile) rather than “Are you ALRIGHT?” (with a worried look).

    I’m chuckling at the “Help me, oh new person” line. I’ve seen that a time or three, and you’re right — the kids pick up on the new person’s eagerness to help pretty much instantaneously, and just as quickly seem to lose all skills and self-help abilities they’ve ever learned! It’s quite striking.

    Children need our “affirmation, not our fear.” I like that way of framing it.

    Comment by Carrie | January 7, 2010 | Reply

  4. I used to go to a playgroup when my kids were little. There was a big room for kids to run around and the parents sat at tables nearby to chat and dole out snacks. Everytime we saw a kid crash to the ground or otherwise fall, bang or bump themselves, all of the parents there (whether it was our child or not) would immediately avoid any eye contact with the child.

    Nine times out of ten, when the child saw absolutely no acknowledgment from the grown-up crowd, they would happily go back to playing, none the worse for wear.

    “Don’t anybody look!” I’m a fan of that strategy, too, though I’m astounded that there wasn’t one softie in the adult group who’d spoil it for the rest of you! Your example absolutely proves the point, though, doesn’t it? Nine times out of ten, there’s no adult input required, and in certain situations (quite a few, really) adult attention can easily make matters worse.

    Comment by tuesy | January 7, 2010 | Reply

  5. There was the time when I was cheery and encouraging with my son and it turned out he’d broken his leg, of course.

    He wasn’t very old. He doesn’t remember I suggested he get up and waggle it around a bit to make it feel better.

    I’m laughing out loud. Yes, that sort of thing does happen with this strategy. I am assuming, however, that it was only a matter of seconds before you realized the boy was seriously injured. You didn’t make him walk to the doctor, I trust?

    Comment by Z | January 7, 2010 | Reply

  6. We ran into this with my step-son. My fiancee’ taught him (dare I say “trained” him) to stand up, dust himself off dramatically, and say “TA-DA!”

    I spend most of my working life “training” children. (As I trained myself to play the piano, and to stop chewing my nails, as athletes train for events — I have no idea why we don’t like that word.)

    And I love the “TA-DA!” idea. I think I will steal it!

    Comment by Beth910 | January 7, 2010 | Reply

  7. I LOVE the TA-DA from Beth’s comment.

    My son will trip, crash to the ground, then get up and say “its alright mummy, I’m okay”. Its exactly what I always say to him. I also very early on, taught him to “rub it better”. When you fall down and hurt your knees and hands, just get up and rub it better and if it’s really bad, you can give it a kiss better….yourself!

    It’s cute to watch him give his finger a kiss better if he’s banged it.

    Comment by Tammy | January 7, 2010 | Reply

  8. Exactly. They look to us a LOT to see how they should react. My usual response for a no-big-deal tumble is to look slightly impressed and say, “Ka-BOOM!” I’m not entirely sure why, I just do. Seems to work in that they get acknowledged, but not fretted over.

    Comment by kittenpie | January 7, 2010 | Reply

  9. I am a professional on-call nanny, and I experience the same projection situation when the parents leave for the day. The parents tell me to expect the child will cry when they leave, will cry when you put them down for a nap, etc. I simply nod, smile, and ignore their warnings. I expect the child will quickly move on with their day, then I project that expectation in tone and actions. And whadda you know, 9 times out of 10, no tears.

    Comment by Liz | January 7, 2010 | Reply

  10. We got good mileage out of an impressed face and a hearty ‘Wow! Did you bounce?’

    Comment by daysgoby | January 7, 2010 | Reply

  11. The more experience I get in life, the more I am learning that this strategy can work for adults, too.

    Comment by lisa | January 8, 2010 | Reply

  12. I always assumed that all mothers quickly learn the “Whoopsies, you’re fine!” response which I picked up when I was still a teenager.

    Then again, at Christmas with my in-laws, the youngest went and whacked his head hard on the side of the table. His mother sitting next to him didn’t react and so he went back to goofing off. Meanwhile, my other sister-in-law responded with shock. “He just hit is head really hard! I can’t believe how calmly you’re taking it. If it were one of mine we’d be rushing to the hospital.”
    “Yeah, well,” the boy’s mother answers, “he hits his head a lot. He has a hard head.”

    Comment by ifbyyes | January 9, 2010 | Reply

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