Mary O’Donohue is the best-selling author of the award winning parenting book, When You Say “Thank You,” Mean It, and has been featured in Parents Magazine, AOL’s Parent Dish, and contributes regularly to The Chicago Tribune’s Parent ‘Hood column. Mary has appeared on numerous TV programs including “The Better Show” in New York and is interviewed regularly on radio shows across the country. In addition, Mary speaks to enthusiastic audiences about the power of extraordinary character from childhood onward. Mary and her husband Jim have been married for seventeen years and have two children, Connor and Grace; a teen and a ‘tween. In addition to writing, Mary enjoys a successful career in television production, including 12 seasons with the Oprah Winfrey Show. She is an avid traveler, having spent time in China, Turkey, Greece, Malta, Spain, Ireland, England, Wales, France, and Italy. Mary donates a portion of her author’s net profits to charities benefiting families and education.
Almost every evening, my 15-year-old son Connor does something he has been doing for more than a decade. He reads to me. Of course, when he was very young I was the one doing the nightly reading. But somewhere along the way, we traded places, and we’ve never looked back. I treasure my time with him, and I love the opportunity to share important lessons found among the pages of great books.
Just the other night he read the words of Atticus Finch:
If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. - From To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Finch. As a parent whose goal it is to raise children with extraordinary character, I don’t just want my kids to have empathy – I want it to be part of their identities. In order for this to happen, I first have to make the abstract concept of empathy real and concrete in my children’s daily lives.
I start by talking to my kids about their own emotions. Have they ever felt happy or sad, left out or included, judged or accepted, embarrassed or proud of themselves? Of course they have. Empathy starts with something a child can identify with – his or her own feelings. From there, children can imagine that other people have experienced these very same emotions. And if we have empathy and can relate to how another person feels, we create a connection to that person. That connection plants the seeds for many important character traits, including respect for others.
It’s easy to see the role empathy plays in respecting others, but how can we as parents foster and develop respectful behavior rooted in empathy? Here are a few practical things I have done with my own children that have been remarkably effective:
1. Create “Respect Tiles.”
Come up with ways as a family (this can also be done in a classroom) in which everyone can be respectful of each other. Start by asking each person to list ways in which they feel respected (i.e. “I feel respected when my classmates think about my feelings and include me at recess.”) The example below was drawn by my 10-year-old daughter Grace with permanent marker on a plain and inexpensive white 4 x 4 tile from the hardware store. It can also be done on simple index cards. The only caveat? Don’t actually use the word “respect” on the tiles. That’s too vague. Identify specific behaviors that are respectful.
Make at least 5 tiles and have everyone in the family (or class) focus on truly living that particular respectful behavior for one full day. Here’s another example of a respectful behavior that considers someone’s feelings, drawn by my son Connor.
2. Celebrate diversity!
Since becoming a parent, I’ve noticed that many schools proudly tout the fact that they have atmospheres of tolerance. I just don’t get that. Why are we extolling mere tolerance when we could be respecting each other instead? I tolerate a bad hair day or being stuck in traffic – but never, ever, a person. Where is the empathy in tolerance? Every person is worthy of much more than that. Every person deserves respect. One way to share this message with your children is to give them opportunities to expand their horizons culturally. Go to plays from other cultures, read books, watch international children’s movies, eat in restaurants of many countries, or even better – cook with your kids and a friend from a culture other than your own, listen to folk tales from around the world, spend time around people of all ages, and backgrounds, etc...
3. Teach children what I call “The Language of Respect.”
Let them know that they can show respect to other people by how they address and describe them. I always want my children to see the person first and their circumstance afterwards. For example, if a boy has transferred mid-year to my daughter’s class, I urge her to refer to him by his name, “Juan” rather than “the new kid.” Also, describing someone as “a man without a home” conveys a very different feeling than “a homeless man.” It may seem subtle, but it makes a difference.
When it comes to teaching our children how to see each other, to speak to each other, and to treat each other, true respect must always be rooted in empathy.