Ruth Mason
Writer, mother, parent educator, activist, gardner

Parenting 101: ‘What do you think he is feeling?’

Life in the Seventies

Parenting 101: “What do you think he is feeling?”

I’m learning a lot from my kids lately. Yesterday, Gabe, our youngest, told me about a scene on Master Chef that struck him. The camera had focused on a contestant’s wife and 8-year-old daughter. The mom was talking to her daughter about what her dad might be feeling.

Mother: “What are you going to say to him if he loses?”

Daughter: “I’m going to give him a hug and say, ‘better luck next time.’”

I’d give her an A in emotional intelligence!

“You and Dad didn’t do that with us,” Gabe said. “You didn’t teach us to take other people into consideration.”

Yet another parenting blooper. There were many and I’ve been hearing about them from Gabe and his siblings. Throughout his teens and early 20s, Gabe wasn’t much interested in communicating with me so when he talks now, I sit up and listen. I want to hear everything he has to say, even if it’s hard on the ego.

Developmental psychologists call it “theory of mind” or “mentalization.” These are fancy words for when a young child develops the ability and capacity to realize that other people have thoughts that are different from her own.

In my studies at Lóczy, formerly known as the Pikler® Institute and the repository of some of the world’s wisest wisdom on infants and toddlers, I learned that “it takes years (for children) to realize that this is not just an interesting object but a person like me.”

I learned there – and at RIE® (Resources for Infant Educarers, founded in California by Magda Gerber, a protégé of Dr. Emmi Pikler) – that when a baby takes a toy away from another, at first she looks only at the object. At a later stage, she also will look at the face of the person from whom she’s taken the toy. That is the beginning of mentalization, of an awareness that the other person has thoughts and feelings too and that they are different from mine.

I remember my friend Beth taking her toddler, Matthew, aside at a play date of our mothers’ group in my living room. Our roommate was having dinner with friends in the open plan dining room across the hall. Beth’s son had a booming voice at that age and she, who had been a teacher and was studying to be a child psychologist, bent down to his level, looked him in the eye and said, “Those people there are eating their dinner.” She called his attention to their needs.

Years later, when Beth and her family were visiting Israel, they attended our Seder. We asked people to go around and say something they had learned from their mothers. Matthew had been watching a sports game that he didn’t want to miss, but Beth had insisted he come to our house early because I wanted the young people to plan an activity for the Seder. When his turn came in the round, he said, “I learned from my mom that you need to take other people’s needs into consideration.” Beth had started young with this message and kept at it.

I don’t think we did that enough but this column is not a mea culpa (though I do feel regret.) It’s a message to young parents out there: Don’t neglect this aspect of your children’s education. Gabe says it’s taken him years to learn to take the feelings and viewpoints of others into consideration and it’s a work in progress. We could have helped him along his way if we’d focused on this more when we were raising him.

When discussing this with our older son, Yosef, he pointed out that we often told our children what kinds of behavior we felt were appropriate around other people. But it strikes me that that was more on an intellectual/behavioral level. Also, we were telling them what to do. What the master chef mom said helps to sensitize her child. It helps her develop empathy and reach her own conclusions about how to behave.

If only I’d had my kids around to advise me about how to parent them more effectively when I was raising them!

About the Author
Born to Bukharian parents in Los Angeles, Ruth Mason immigrated to Israel with her family in 1993 after a long stint in Manhattan. She is a veteran journalist and columnist who now writes for Shatil, the action arm of the New Israel Fund. A lifelong baby lover, she teaches parent-infant classes based on the RIE and Pikler approaches.