Focus on the Empathy

In an opinion piece by Katie Hurley for the Washington Times, the topic of “shake it off parenting” is explored, along with a personal look at the kind of impact it can have on a child.

First, let’s take a step back and define “shake it off parenting” (SOP) as told by Hurley. In essence, it is the opposite of helicopter parenting. Instead of the parent or authority figure hovering closely over their child’s life, and in many cases making decisions for them, SOP takes it in a completely opposite direction.

In a way, this is understandable. It’s demonstrably unhealthy for children to expect someone to pick up the pieces of their mistakes and shortcomings. However, when we encourage kids to “shake it off”, we are sacrificing a crucial developmental moment: learning to empathize with others.

Next time your child  is down, talk about it with empathy.

Next time your child is down, talk about it with empathy.

The SOP parent is one who is obsessed with a child succeeding on their own. Unlike the helicopter parent, for the SOP a child’s experiences with failure are tantamount to success later in life. But perhaps this kind of parent-child interaction misses the point. Through this myopic parenting lens, parents’ dreams of a successful life for their children could backfire. Hurley cites a longitudinal study that sheds light on parenting styles as it relates to child’s future happiness. The findings, that children who perceived their parents as empathetic turned out to be happier in adulthood, runs counter to many common assumptions.

In contrast is a study by the Harvard School of Education. In this one, children expressed that their parents were more concerned with personal achievement and happiness than demonstrating some kind of care towards others.

With this information firmly under her belt, Hurley argues that SOP has three negative effects on children:

  • As discussed above, it saps them of empathy. Children are not given the space or experience to find the value in understanding the feelings of others.
  • Achievement loses its intrinsic value. Children learn to compete for competition’s sake, and knock down others on the way to the top. They can fail to understand the situational differences between them and someone else.
  • Shaming children dampens self-confidence. When they are hurt physically or emotionally, and their feelings are dismissed or they are told to “toughen up”, they may question their own strength and self worth.

It’s interesting to see these observations from the opinion of a parent. It may be an opinion, but the data is in: we can’t underestimate the role of empathy in a child’s development.

A Closer Bond

Take a moment to think back to when you were a young adult. Or, if you’re a young adult today, imagine your parents at your age. Between all the memes and jokes about Boomers and Gen X’ers graduating college and starting a job at 21, then starting a family and owning a home by 24, lies a grain of truth.

As it turns out, children today are more attached to their parents than they were several decades ago. And the attachment isn’t negative or overly dependent; it’s actually quite healthy. According to a recent post by Medical Daily, the mix of technology, a tough job market, and a greater emphasis on education instead of raising a family has driven children closer to their parents.

The implications on child psychological development are many, and must be responsibly acknowledged by both parents and their older children. With a third of young adults (18-25 years old) living at home, parents may not easily realize the developmental line between their young child and their rapid entry into adulthood. Predictably, smothering young adults like they are young children can have undesirable consequences as they transition into the workforce.

But why are so many grown children living at home in the first place? It’s not because they’re feckless and lazy. Instead, culture now emphasizes the knowledge over property. It’s the norm for kids to pursue an undergraduate education. And with the economy and job market taking a turn for the worse towards the end of the last decade, it makes sense that recent graduates are moving back home.

Equally important is the increasing age of marriage. Instead of marrying in the early 20’s, young adults are staying single for longer while they get more footing on their careers. Because of a lack of marital or familial obligations, they can continue to have frequent interactions with their parents.

Technology also brings parents and children closer together than ever before. Even for those not living at home, they are able to stay in touch thanks to the ubiquitousness of mobile phones, video phones like Skype, and social networks such as Facebook.