By: Dr. Ali Hill
Relationships are powerful. As human beings, our brains are hardwired for connection. We really need other people, and when our children see their friends gets the part in the play they wanted, the frustration, anger and jealousy can rip apart relationships and make our kids feel badly about themselves.
As parents, conversations about disappointment, perseverance and gratitude for what we do have are some of the most challenging to tackle. For many of us, we just don’t know where to start.
Turns out, there’s a process that can help us figure this out. To create a home life where everyone feels safe enough to speak about these issues. To help us respond thoughtfully to our kids’ questions and needs, rather than react without thought. To have meaningful conversations with our children about the things that matter most.
We can lay the foundation for having these tough conversations – and so much more – if we commit to building an empathy practice in our lives. Empathy, it turns out, is a real family-dynamic game-changer.
So, what exactly do I mean by an empathy practice?
Well, empathy is about stepping into the shoes of other people, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide our actions. It’s different from expressions of sympathy – like pity or feeling sorry for somebody – because these don’t involve our trying to understand the other person’s emotions or point of view.
When it comes to an audition, even if you never tried out for a part, put yourself in your kids’ shoes and consider how they are feeling. Think back to something you really wanted at their age, and if you didn’t get that something, how it made you feel, especially if the person who did get it was one of your friends! Then use these memories to help you understand your kids’ situation and keep their feelings and needs at the forefront of your conversation.
My friend Mindy Kay Smith, performing arts teacher and stag mom, suggested that you give your kids the option to vent at home about their disappointment, even as you encourage them to accept the role gracefully when they are around their peers and directors. She went on to say, however, that it is wise to put a time-limit on that venting. One of her friend’s told her that when she was a child, her parents put a one-night limit on the venting. She was allowed to be disappointed. She was allowed to whine and complain. But only for one evening. The next day she was expected to wake up committed to the show and ready to play the role she was assigned.
Sometimes, empathy is misunderstood as the “golden rule” – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The reason this isn’t quite right is that the golden rule assumes that the person you are trying to empathize with would want you to do for them what you would want done for you – it assumes that your interests coincide with theirs.
What empathy really is is more like the “platinum rule” – do unto others as they would have you do unto them. The platinum rule asks us to resist the temptation of projecting our own experiences, views or needs onto others, and to understand them and their needs well enough to do what they want from us, and not just do what we would want from them.
In the case of the emotional roller coaster surrounding casting, ask your kids what they would like you to do to support them. My friend Mindy suggested helping your kids think through what success looks like for them – outside of getting a particular part. For example, did they sing with confidence? Were they prepared? Focused? Have they improved from past auditions? Celebrating the victories of this audition and focusing on the things that were in their control can help ease the disappointment. And, if you can set up what success looks like for them before the audition, even better!
Empathy is all about tuning in with yourself and your kids. It’s about thoughtful reflection, deep understanding and careful listening – all of which are critical when you’re having conversations with your kids about the things that matter most.
Dr. Ali Hill is a mom, entrepreneur, and sociologist who teaches adults the skills they need to understand and manage emotions, strengthen their empathy muscles, and create and sustain relationships with others. She believes that teaching empathy is the key to establishing thriving communities where everyone feels safe, respected, and valued. www.dralihill.com.