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Common Mistakes in Teaching Empathy

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

Is there enough empathy in the world? Hardly, but it does still exist. And the good thing is that everyone is born with the capacity for empathy just as we’re born with the capacity for narcissism. It’s a good thing to develop a bit of each and find a balance between caring for others and caring for ourselves.

As a parent or a teacher, you’re bound to make some mistakes. Right? You just don’t want to keep making the same ones over and over again, do you?

I have a feeling that’s why you’re here. You’re intentional about your parenting and/or your teaching and you realize what an important job it truly is. Possibly the most important.

And you realize that empathy counts, people matter and that making money isn't always the loftiest of goals. You are the type of person that I like to associate with. Here’s what you’ll learn today.

  • Why democracy isn’t always the best policy when it comes to family and what you can do instead

  • How doing either too much or too little can be catastrophic and how to find your middle ground

  • A chart to help you decide how to react to your child’s misbehaviors in a way that really works!

I had a conversation with a really good parent during which she asked me if I thought a family should be like a democracy. After thinking for a minute I said, no, I think it should be more like a benevolent dictatorship. Somebody's got to be in charge and it might as well be you!

The truth is that kids don't like it when they have too much control in a family. They try but they really do need someone to take the reigns. When left to their own devices they can become ungrateful, rude, and uncaring. A little bit of responsibility doled out at appropriate ages does a lot more for their behavior than too much, too soon.

I once attended a lecture that blew me away and changed the way I taught and parented forever. I’ll never forget it. The speaker was Dave Riley and the subject was parenting styles. Riley was summarizing the 1966 research of Diane Baumrind from the University of CA at Berkeley. Here's a summary of the four major parenting styles.


emotionally detached, self-absorbed, inconsistent or no boundaries, little interaction


nurturing, affectionate, few or inconsistent boundaries, takes the role of a friend rather than the parent


strict, inflexible, high expectations, punishes rather than disciplines or guides.


nurturing, affectionate, sets boundaries, disciplines through guidance, open communication

Of course, it was the authoritative parenting style that yielded the best results. The only problem I see with this research is that the words authoritarian and authoritative are too similar and that can make the whole thing a little bit confusing. Here are the 3 major mistakes parents can make in my own words based on 40+ years of teaching.

Ignoring your kids (uninvolved parent)

If you don't have a lot of time to spend with your kids, that's OK, just make sure you spend some of it doing the most important 2 things to promote empathy. Read to them and talk to them about feelings, theirs, yours and other people's. Talking with your child during their daily bath instead of looking at your phone can do a lot more good than spending a lot of time in their presence and resenting it.

Being Too Nice (permissive parenting)

Children need to feel secure. Parents and teachers need to take control, especially in matters of health and safety. If you've already explained yourself, it's OK to say no. Sometimes parents/teachers decide. Believe me, it's better that way.

It's good to make them wait sometimes too. It helps them develop self-control.

Being Too Bossy (authoritarian parenting)

Bossing children around and depending on punishment and guilt to control them just turns them into bullies. Children learn by example. They'll decide that power is everything and you'll find yourself in the middle of a mess. If you don't believe me take a look at this section of Supernanny from 3:05-4:45.

When I was a young teacher someone gave me a copy of this chart based on the work of Rudolph Driekurs. Driekurs was a student of Alfred Adler, the father of humanitarian psychology. He focussed his work on children.

I like the chart because it not only talks about corrective measures but also the flip side of the coin that so often gets ignored. What you actually need to teach the child.

Thanks for reading this! If you want more on teaching empathy through play, you can join my community of very important parents and other educators here and get the rest of the lessons delivered effortlessly to your inbox. Plus you'll get my slideshow on How to Get Kids To Listen and Like It for free!

Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, SELF-care facilitator, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.

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