Caring for young children can, at times, be a challenge. Things we, as adults, firmly believe to be irrelevant, like which color cup you’re given at dinner, can spark a full blown tantrum. At other times, however, being with these same children can be wholly enjoyable. Things we find mundane, like a multicolored pebble or a small rubber toy from the doctor’s office, can elicit a reaction you’d think would be reserved for moments of pure bliss.
The above-mentioned examples have a common theme: Our inability, as adults, to truly understand a child’s reaction to a given situation. In my mind, this stems from an overarching challenge parents have in raising children, particularly in the early years. We can’t empathize. Empathy can be understood as the ability to truly experience another individual’s perspective. If we were able to empathize with our children, we’d understand why it had to be the orange cup, but we don’t. And we can’t. For whatever reason, nature has created a process in which, by the time we’re old enough to parent children ourselves, we’ve largely forgotten what it was like to be one. And what we do remember is so clouded by emotion and judgment of our own parents and childhood that we’ve lost the ability to truly learn from our experiences.
While this lack of empathy may be interesting to think about on an intellectual level, it also directly impacts nearly every interaction we have with our children. It makes no sense that our kids won’t get in the car even though we’re rushing to get to their friend’s birthday party. We are left pulling out our hair (if we have any remaining) when they won’t pick up their toys so they can get the snack they asked for. But if we take a step back we realize that our expectations of their behavior are based on the assumption that our children view the world the same way we do. And that’s not true.
A few years ago my own children, ages 2 and 4 at the time, wanted to take a picture. So I gave them the camera and posed next to my wife. The kids held the camera, aimed, and clicked. When I first looked at the image they produced, I laughed. Then I looked again. It was a picture of 2 sets of legs, from just above the ankle to the middle of the thigh. What I then realized [that may have long been obvious to more attuned parents] was that those legs represent the world through their eyes.
We’ve all had an unfamiliar toddler wrap themselves around our legs only to be horrified when they look up and see that we are not who they think we are. When a 2 year old walks into a party, they see lots of legs. When an 18-monther toddles around the living room, they see the bottom shelves of bookcases, and we wonder why those books so often end up on the floor. In order to actually see a face, young children typically have to stretch their neck to what looks like an uncomfortable angle. And yet when we interact with our children we assume they see the world the same way we do.
As a clinician working with young children and their families, it can be hard to help a parent understand their child’s perspective. So, at times, I’ve asked parents to lie down on their stomach in the middle of the living room floor and look around. If you have young kids at home, the view from this perspective is an interesting exercise and, I think, can be helpful in understanding your child’s world. While it’s difficult to keep that view in our mind at all times, it can be a step toward us modifying our expectations of our children and their behavior. It can be a step towards empathy.