You’ve enrolled your child in a new dance class. They seem excited and a bit nervous. The day arrives, and your sweet munchkin doesn’t want to go anymore. They feel sick and they want to stay home.
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You’re frustrated because this has happened before. Enthusiasm and excitement, followed by nerves and tears. You’ve paid for the class already and you’re tempted to bring out the bribes and the threats. This time, you press pause. You take yourself back to your childhood when you had your first swimming lesson. You didn’t want to get in the water, but you were threatened with a consequence if you didn’t pull your socks up. This isn’t a great memory. While you’re keen for your child to try new things and give life a go, you don’t want them to do it through coercion or control.
One thing that helps all of us is to have someone empathise with our struggle and our fears. It sounds easy to do, but it’s not always natural.
Helping your child to try
So, you sit with your child and you show some empathy. It might sound like, “Honey, it looks like you don’t want to go to your new dance class. It’s hard to do something you haven’t done before.” You put yourself on pause. You stop insisting that they join in. Gently, you take their hand and explain that they’ll still go, but they can just watch.
Your child seems content with this. You brought some muffins from home and they help to fill an empty tummy while you sit on the sidelines. Your wee one watches for 10 minutes and then skips off and joins in. Not even a goodbye! Empathy really does make a difference.
Parents really want good things for their children. They want their children to have the opportunity to try hobbies, sports, friends, and classes. Parents hope their children will find their passion and follow it. They also hope deeply that their children will not be afraid to give new things a go. They know that confidence comes from experimenting, joining in, and being prepared to learn and grow.
So, how do we set children up for success and encourage them to be empathetic? It starts with you, at home.
Model what it looks like to try new things
It could be making a new friend, trying a new recipe in the kitchen, enrolling in an evening class, or starting a different routine with your laundry. Talk to your child about what you’re doing, let them know that it’s scary for you too.
Have a collective family motto posted on the fridge
Stick it up so that everyone can see and sign up to. ‘In our family we give new things go’ or ‘In our family we make mistakes, because that’s how you learn’.
Find a story or make one up
Create a similar scenario of another child struggling to try something new. Invite your child to empathise with that feeling of hesitancy, nerves or fear. “How would you feel if you were Tyla and had never played softball before? What would you say to her to give her the courage to try?” A story can be a wonderful rehearsal for a real life experience. Children love the novelty of coming up with ideas and solutions for tricky situations. Sit at the table and chat through your ideas as a family.
Spend time talking and listening to each other
You can do this in the car, while cooking together in the kitchen, at bedtime, and so on. Teach your children to wait and take their turn. This takes time and lots of patience. If children feel really listened to, they’ll grow in empathy.
Be ready to acknowledge the little steps
It can take a lot for a child to take steps towards growing in courage and confidence. Remembering to smile and say hello to the teacher might be a significant step for your shy child. Encourage them in their small acts of bravery.
As parents, we’ve all got dreams for our kids. To dream that your child would be brave enough to give things a go, and feel equally reassured that their parent has also made room for their nerves and fear, will give them wings to fly and roots to return to. They’ll have courage to try, and the empathy to sit with others when they fail.