According to Dr. William Sears, being emotionally responsive to your child is of paramount importance in parenting. It’s something that begins early and continues to grow as you and your child grow. Because of this empathy, only you become the best-educated person on your own child.
Our Catholic faith tells us that we are the first educators of our children. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2221+) In our choices of response or restraint, we teach our children about the Father’s love. Positive response is love. Positive response means specifically responding with what is good to the very particular needs of the child at a particular time. God himself gives of himself in a particular way to us (through his very self) and we, as parents, learn to imitate this love of God to our children.
A mother gives of her physical self during pregnancy and nursing. A father learns self-denial and restraint in educating through life and atmosphere to his children. His response to his child gives a child his/her first education of what a heavenly Father is like. For me, the first part of being empathically responsive to my child is to find a calm in myself. When I am at peace with myself, I am much more able to respond to the daily needs of each of my children. And birth is just the beginning of a life of responding to a child!
The Saint Francis of Assisi prayer can be one to help you find peace in a tense moment with a child.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Or in the heat of a moment we may find assistance in an even simpler prayer such as “Mary Queen of Peace, pray for me!”.
The initial response of a mother to a child at birth might include skin to skin contact. Skin to skin contact is proven to increase the mother-child bond. As the child calms at the mothers chest or breast, the mother receives both emotional and physical benefits. This begins a beautiful circle of growth for mothers to continue to respond to their children’s needs for years.
An emotionally responsive mother uses all her senses to notice her child’s needs. In the beginning years, when communication from an infant is all noise and body movements, a mother learns to identify the need behind specific cries. She sees and learns that a fist placed near a mouth might mean “I’m hungry”. The changes in baby’s breathing patterns teaches a mother through hearing that someone is lonely or tired. A mother can even smell the need for a diaper change!
Keeping a child near mother both during awake and asleep times can help the mother to respond quickly to her needs. I’ve found babywearing to be particularly helpful in noticing changes in babies’ needs. During the night, having a baby near mom makes for a quick response. Safe co-sleeping allows a parent to respond to a child before they reach a panic state. If a mother is breastfeeding, she will be able to return to sleep more quickly when baby is with her in the bed. (The benefit for mother to have extended infertility is great too!)
When a baby is responded to quickly, she begins to trust her parent. This becomes a strong bond that lasts for life. A parent must continue to grow this relationship everyday. As a child grows, the parent finds new ways to respond to needs/wants/requests. With each response to our child, we teach our child. Learning to respond with clear boundaries and expectations allows us to balance our child’s needs with our own. As children reach two years of age, they can learn through our gentle communication that sometimes a response means “wait” and sometimes it means “no”. This is a way that parents can teach virtue.
God’s emotional responsiveness was shown to Adam and Eve and recorded in the Old Testament. His presence (Shekinah) to his chosen people, the Hebrews, went before them as a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. This showed them that God was both present to them and protecting them. (Exodus 13:21) In the New Covenant, Jesus came physically to us as a human and remains with us physically after every Mass. God also sent the Holy Spirit to be continually present with us until his return. (John 16:5-15)
Empathic responsiveness toward toddlers, who are yet to develop words for how they feel, requires us to decode their behavior. According to Pam Leo, in her book Connection Parenting, “decoding behavior means looking for the intention behind the action.” When children act, they are communicating. It’s a parent’s responsibility to help them communicate their need until they are old enough to meet their own needs. We, as adults, might give them words to say such as “you are feeling angry about Tim taking that toy from you.” This list helps me to know different ways to share how kids are feeling (and for myself at times too). As parents it’s also our responsibility to follow up by saying “It’s not okay to hit Tim when he takes your toy.” “Let’s tell Tim that it hurts you when he takes your toy without asking.”
As children find their voice, they can share their needs and wants. We, as adults, can see the many blessings that God gives us without us even voicing our needs (though sometimes we need reminders to see them!). It becomes a gift when parents can respond to their child before their child even asks for a need. This might be through preparing a snack for a long morning away from the house with the knowledge that hunger comes after shopping with a toddler. Some parents might find a child is emotionally exhausted after trips away from the home and so they plan down time accordingly for that child. A parent might plan for a longer night-time routine when having been away from a child during the day.
As children reach school age, responsiveness can mean walking away from daily distractions and purposefully carving out time just for our child. This might mean finding a project to share together on a continued basis or as simple as a weekly walk in the woods. By having this one-on-one time together, we foster a powerful but quiet togetherness. In those moments of quiet work and play, a child feels safe enough to share his feelings with a parent. It can be a tender time of continued growth in the relationship between child and parent. For me, sewing with my daughters and gardening with my son allow us to have time to share and quiet companionship.
Empathic responsiveness begets more empathic responsiveness. When children see parents responding to their siblings, they too want to be emotionally responsive. This carries on down the line. When children’s emotional cups are filled, they are much more able to respond to the needs and concerns of others.
Do you remember those cheesy bumper stickers from the 80’s?
I’d like to challenge you a step further: How will you be emotionally responsive to your child today?