When Empathy Eludes Me

April 24, 2012 at 8:52 am (Positive Discipline)

I’m no stranger to Lego Star Wars. I’m no stranger to regular Star Wars, but I realize for my kids’ generation, the saga has a whole new angle…Lego-style. The squat, cube-legged characters occupy some space in our Lego collection, and even more in JJ’s heart.

Yesterday morning, he woke up with Star Wars on his mind, and from the first moment I saw him, he spent 45 minutes telling me about the Lego Star Wars video game. I’ve seen this game; he’s played it once before at his cousin’s house. It must have made quite an impression on him because the details have stuck with him for almost 3 months.

When I say he “told” me about the game, what I mean is he acted it out, gestured emphatically, and used sound effects to convey a one-man Lego Star Wars gaming experience. He demonstrated battle moves, asked questions that would engage me (“So mom, do you think if I used this move, my guy would be able to dodge the light saber or not?” “Um, no…I think that would be too tricky.” “No, he did! If I do this [impromptu demo], that move will allow him to dodge and roll away!”), and periodically checked in as to whether I thought the game sounded “cool.”

As it turned out, he wasn’t trying to tell me about a game he loves as much as he was giving me a pitch for it. I discovered this when the final statement of his sales pitch was, “So, have you decided if you want to buy this game?”

All this time? This is what it’s all been about?

Needless to say, he was upset to hear “Oh, it’s very cool, but I’m not going to buy this game.” Forty-five  minutes of effort…in vain. JJ’s animated, jovial nature disappears; anger erupts.

“Aaaaah! But WHY? WHY won’t you buy it for me? Don’t you know this is what makes me HAPPY? If you want me to be happy, then you have to buy this! This is the only thing that will keep me happy!”

Now, at this point, I’m not quite sure how to respond. JJ’s reaction was very dramatic and strong, and the turn of events surprised me. Oh, I’m SO sorry! I’m sorry your life is so empty. That’s too bad that you don’t have even one other thing in your life that makes you happy. Notice all the “I’m sorry”s in there, not one of them the least bit genuine. In other words:

Buttons. Pushed.

While it’s important to offer kids empathy when they’re upset, it’s essential that it is genuine. So what if, in that moment of surprise and anger, I can’t find any genuine empathy to offer? How should I react? What do I say?

State the obvious and leave it at that. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s better than yelling and better than sarcasm. And it’s way better than yelling sarcasm. “You’re angry about this.” One brief nod. Don’t say another word; take caution against those buttons that have triggered the sarcasm door to open.

I stopped myself before I carried on and on about being grateful, because, really, I know. JJ’s five. He has an immature system for emotional regulation in his brain, and in that moment a Lego Star Wars video game was everything. I needed to kick my mature brain into gear and be the grownup, so I walked away to do the dishes, leaving JJ with his feelings.

And don’t you want me to be happy? says the boy with the angry eyes. “Yes, but that’s not my job. I love you, and as your mom, it is my job to make sure you’re safe, healthy, and secure. Physically safe, nutritionally healthy, and emotionally secure. I’ll do that, and your happiness is up to you. You’re really mad I won’t buy this for you. Mm-hmm. That’s OK. It’s OK to be mad.”

So I left the conversation (sales-pitch-gone-terribly-wrong) communicating simply an understating of his emotions and acceptance of them, and not much more. There was no comforting, no reassuring, and no physical connection, as is usually my instinct. But I just didn’t have it in me. I was upset by the harshness of his words and had no empathy to offer on the subject of a video game equalling happiness.

And, you know, it turned out OK. JJ decided to go up to his room to be alone, listen to music and play with his pet rat, Cookies, and he came down a half-hour later a new boy. We had pleasant conversations and started our day again. He even mentioned the Star Wars game, but with a calm, rational level of disappointment. When I thought I should be doing more to help him with his feelings (finding that genuine empathy), he proved otherwise. A simple bit of reflective listening, and he showed me how capable he is of handling his disappointment and working around it.

On a lighter note, here is something that does make JJ happy: trip wires.

This has become a nightly ritual and a seemingly permanent fixture on the railing.

We head upstairs to get ready for bed. JJ dashes ahead to man the trip wire. He anticipates Dad coming around the corner, and pulls the line taut. But Dad insists that he cannot be fooled.

“I’m not sure why this string is here…I don’t know who would ever be tripped up by this. You’re telling me there is someone who would actually–Wha-? Oh no, MY FOOT! I’m falling!” Down tumbles Dad, and hilarity ensues.

Happiness in a trip wire.


  1. Shannon Mulder said,

    Kelly, I don’t know you personally but you are making a huge difference in my life! Your stories and words ring true to me and the part in today’s post about leaving your child with his feelings…well it encourages me. THANK YOU, for taking the time to do this! I also love the ending note…hilarity ensues…that sums it up! THANK YOU!

  2. Scott Chalk said,

    I agree with Shannon. I get such comfort in reading your posts. Thank you so much.

  3. Kelly said,

    Scott and Shannon, thank you both! It really does mean a lot to hear that. 🙂

  4. teachtheteacher said,

    I love seeing what we do at my school in other places! I have no children of my own, but teach a mixed class of 17 6-8 year olds. I am encouraged to read what you do when your buttons are pushed, and it is a reminder of how I should respond in the class too. Thanks for the encouragement!

  5. krista anderson-ross said,

    This story is my 5 year old son exactly down to the interests and choice of words. Your response to him is my inspiration today as there are so many moments where the object of the emotion is really hard to “appreciate;” thanks!

  6. Leslie said,

    Such a great example! I’m guilty of doing the sarcastic thing with my nine year old – and feeling horrible. This is a great example of what to do when we just don’t have it in us – to stay genuine, but also strong enough to bite our tongue and deal with our own emotions that are being triggered. Interestingly enough, when I have done the sarcastic thing – it’s been surrounding the same exact issue – not a starwars game exactly – but something that is necessary for his happiness and without it his life is empty. I think that really triggers something in us, because as moms sometimes you feel like you are giving and giving and giving so much and comments like that seem so ungrateful. This is a fabulous way for dealing in these circumstances ~sharing!

    • Kelly said,

      Yes, Leslie, that’s it exactly! Thank you!

  7. Kelly said,

    Thank you all for letting me know I’m not alone in these kinds of emotional situations!

  8. Anne said,

    It never occurred to me that my responses to these situations could be construed as sacastic… but indeed, I have treated my daughter’s similar “dramatic responses” with sarcasm. Not only is that disrespectful of her feelings, but it’s mean and rude.
    THANKS for the wake up call!

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