Empathy and Child-Rearing — Lessons from my life, and the movie The Incredibles

Conor Grim Reaper Lochsa

Focus — Conor at the top of Grim Reaper, a rapid on the Lochsa River, Idaho — photo Mike Beiser

Though it’s been a long road, as a predominantly single parent, I’ve managed to launch both my boys off into the world of adulthood.  My youngest son, Conor, just turned 18 a week ago.

I didn’t do it alone — I had some help along the way, from stepmother Alicia, of course, as well as a host of stand-in grandparents, and aunts and uncles.  I was never gifted with a healthy family, and have viewed myself as an orphan for most of my adult life, fairly, I think.  Let’s put it this way — I didn’t learn all the lessons I discuss on this blog by being surrounded by a welcoming sea of empathy.  It’s been an exercise in contrasts.  ‘Nuf said.

And though, like any parent, I worry about both of them, realistically both my sons are on their way to adulthood, and doing fine.  Oldest son Braden (he’s 20) is launching his own start-up company in the crypto-blockchain space.  He’s the CTO of BuyEthDomains.com, which may actually be functional here in a week or two.  He’s making his mark in the digital identity space, and I have reasonable confidence  he’ll make it.  Younger son Conor is headed off to Willamette College in the fall.  Both boys exemplify hustle, and both, on their own, are far along the way to financial independence.  Though either of them might end up back on the couch in the rec. room, I sincerely doubt it.

I have an awesome relationship with both boys.  I am truly blessed.

Since I’ve raised so many kids in my life (I was in nominally in charge of my first family at the age of 9 — I was a terrible 9-year-old parent)  — and of course, the thousands of students I’ve raised in the Industrial Design Clinic — I’ve been thinking about writing a book on parenting.  Many of the principles of sound parenting are the same as evolving a company, and  not surprisingly, follow the Spiral, and growth of agency, reflection, and personal responsibility, and both their key dynamic and their end result — empathy.

This is easier said than done.  Being a parent is the hardest job most people will ever have, and the advice out there is simply horrendous.  Most of it involves teaching, preaching, and telling.  I can tell you there are consequences — none particularly good — that come from beating stuff into people’s head, once you move past about the age of 5.  The short answer to success, however, is relatively simple.  Here it is:

Create safe environments for your children to function in, with functional adults, and don’t interfere.  You work on creating the situations.  Let the children navigate both the situations, and the individuals involved.  The independent relational generation will take care of the rest.

Back in this post, I discussed how the brain gained usable knowledge.  The short version is facts and scaffolding go in on the left, and through experience, become knit together in the hippocampus to form autobiographical experiences, laced with binding emotion, on the right.  This process, though modified and interpreted by me somewhat, (I own all errors of interpretation!) is really applying Dr. Daniel Siegel’s trauma model to the process of education.

What does that translate to as far as your kids?   I start out with a three-step Guiding Principles ladder that I started teaching my kids at the earliest age possible.

  1. Pay Attention (age 3-7)
  2. You are (appropriately) responsible for yourself (age 4-9)
  3. You are responsible for others (age 7-adult)

Naturally, everything maps back to these guiding principles.  It never hurts to emphasize these a little early, but expecting a seven year old to do much more than hold the hand of their buddy is not particularly realistic.  ‘Pay Attention’ is the first step — being aware of the world around you.  It is the nexus of being data-driven and empathetic.

Now here is the big one, stated previously, for you as the parent.  Following the italicized paragraph above, which says that you’re responsible for creating the environment the child primarily functions in (don’t forget that part!)

DON’T TELL THEM WHAT TO DO (unless you absolutely have to — and you usually don’t absolutely have to!)

Let the sidebars and the constraints the child naturally runs into be the thing that redirects the behavior.

And here is the other big thing that you do as a parent.

DISCUSS THE CONSEQUENCES OF DIFFERENT ACTIONS WITH THEM (in the context of that safe space you’ve created.)

I spent a good hunk of my leisure time with my boys running whitewater.  Whenever we would look at a rapid, I would ask them “well, where do you think you should go?”  Inevitably (the whitewater wasn’t that hard) it would end up with ‘down the right’ or something.  If it was a reasonable option, I’d say ‘OK’.  If it wasn’t the path I’d take, I’d say “Well, I think I’m gonna go down the left.”  If they elected to go right, and they did great, I would congratulate them on a job well done.  And if they blew the line, well, the river would dole out the ass-kicking.  Not me.

Why does this matter?  Every time you correct your child, as opposed to creating a situation which delivers either correct behavior, or lessons learned from failure, you run the risk of also creating a diminution of agency, and what is called narcissistic injury.  Put simply, narcissistic injury is an Authoritarian v-Meme blow to the egocentric self.  It actually breeds more narcissism, because instead of allowing the child to appropriately aggregate their experiences, and reflect on the consequences, the child is placed into a situation where they instead focus on your control of their actions.  This insertion of your parental authority into their ego is a boundary violation and a separation of child from a natural growth path.

That doesn’t mean for a red second I haven’t told my children as I’ve raised them ‘No’. But it’s a tool to be used sparingly.  And needless to say, I would never taunt my child after a failure.  Your job is NOT to establish the authority of your knowledge.  It is to help the child understand how to make a better decision the next time around.

One of my favorite movies that shows inherently the peril of ignoring this is the first Incredibles movie.  In that movie, the antagonist, Buddy, initially admires Mr. Incredible and wants to emulate him.  It’s insinuated that Mr. Incredible has been patient with Buddy, but early in the movie (on Mr. Incredible’s wedding day to Elastigirl) Buddy, who has named himself Incrediboy, interferes with Mr. Incredible’s crime-fighting efforts, and has to be sent home in shame with the police.

Buddy is a genius, and never truly recovers from the psychic wound this trauma delivers.  The end result is that it transforms his path from being a good guy and fighting crime to being an empathy-disordered psychopath.  He turns himself into a super-villain named Syndrome, with one goal of killing off Mr. Incredible.  In the end, he is undone by a number of factors, but none more primary than his own narcissism.  Needless to say, that’s not the relationship you want to have with your kid.

Some parents might interpret this advice as creating only positive situations for children to learn with, or interfering in relationships with potentially difficult (but still safe– that matters!) adults.  I strongly believe that once an adult is inside your safe zone, you should let your children interact with them as the child sees fit.  I do make a point of advising the adult that if they spoil the child, I won’t be stepping in to deliver discipline, or otherwise interfere.  The result is that my children both have a rich set of relationships with a truly diverse network of adults. Your child is going to have to learn to deal with people who think differently from them, or even you.  So many of the ‘bubble’ problems we’re seeing in adults nowadays could be prevented if more adults adopted this attitude.

In the end, it is all about empathy development.  Remember the Guiding Principles, and create the situations.  You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is than policing.


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