The gift of empathy

The Gift of Empathy: How a Playground Incident Taught Me to See Beyond Behavior

The day started out normally enough. I took my daughter Aanya, age 8, to the neighborhood park to play. She ran off to join a group of kids chasing each other and climbing on the play structures. I sat down on a bench with the other parents to chat.

After a while, I noticed the laughter turn to yelling. I looked over to see Aanya being confronted by two other girls, Priya and Sonali (name changed). From the heated argument, I gathered that they had all been playing together when a dispute broke out over the rules of some game.

Instead of talking it out, Priya and Sonali began taunting Aanya, calling her names and accusing her of cheating. Aanya reacted by shouting back insults of her own. Soon, all three girls were in tears as the argument escalated.

As a parent, my first instinct was to march over there and defend my child. But another parent, Priya’s dad Rajiv, put a hand on my arm to stop me. “Let’s give them a chance to work it out themselves first,” he suggested gently. I hesitated, but agreed to hold back and observe for the moment.

After what felt like an eternity of yelling, little Priya did something amazing. She took a deep breath and apologized to Aanya for the mean things she had said, explaining that she had gotten overly upset about losing the game. This heartfelt apology caught Aanya off guard. She wiped her eyes and mumbled an apology too. Sonali, following Priya’s lead, also apologized.

In that moment, these children demonstrated true courage, resilience and empathy. Despite their anger a minute earlier, they chose understanding over retaliation. Rajiv and I looked at each other in awe of what we had witnessed.

The girls ended up talking, playing together again, and most importantly, listening to understand the other’s perspective instead of just wanting to be understood themselves. I realized this was a vital lesson in conflict resolution for all of us, not just the children. If 8 year olds could tap into empathy when emotions were running high, so could adults.

I’m grateful this minor playground argument happened when I was there to observe. It taught me so much about my daughter and about life. By keeping my anger in check and letting the children work through their issues independently, they helped me better understand the power of empathy.

The incident at the park was an important reminder for me as a parent. It taught me three key lessons:

  1. Children have immense inner strength and resilience. It’s easy to rush in wanting to protect our kids from harm or hurt. But sometimes stepping back allows them to tap into their own emotional intelligence and problem solving skills. I was amazed how Priya, Sonali and Aanya self-corrected the situation through heartfelt apologies and forgiveness.
  2. Leading with empathy transforms conflicts. Things could have easily escalated into a mud-slinging mess. But Priya’s courage to offer an apology first disarmed the situation. She wasn’t thinking about who was right or wrong anymore, only healing the rift between friends. Her empathy paved the way for Aanya and Sonali to follow suit.
  3. We can learn from our children. As parents and adults, we too often let our egos take over when disputes arise. We get defensive and argue about who is in the wrong. In this moment of frustration, three young girls modeled true grace under fire. Their emotional regulation and conflict resolution skills were far greater than most adults I know!

This humbling experience showed me that kids have a lot to teach us grown-ups. With some guidance, they can solve their own problems. Taking a step back allows them to learn and grow in emotional intelligence. My daughter and her friends reminded me that leading with an open heart can overcome almost any disagreement or misunderstanding.

There will surely be other playground incidents or disputes at school as our kids grow up. But I now know they have the inner capacity to handle these themselves, sometimes better than I can. My role is not to swoop in and save the day, but rather empower them with empathy and patience. If they see me react calmly with an open mind, that sets the tone for how they too can handle life’s inevitable conflicts.

I’m thankful to have witnessed this moment which I know will deeply influence my parenting style going forward. By letting our children take the lead at times with their innate wisdom, we allow their emotional skills to blossom even further, and learn some critical lessons ourselves along the way.

If you as parents have experienced a similar situation, I encourage you to reflect on what it taught you. Our children have so much wisdom if we create the space for them to work through problems independently. Any insights or lessons you have learned from real life conflicts between kids, I would love for you to share with the broader parenting community.

Words from Blog Owner

Let’s continue this conversation and learn from each other’s growth moments as parents. If you have a story to share about your child demonstrating emotional intelligence, forgiveness, empathy or problem solving during a dispute, please send it to me via DM at my Instagram account @momyhood_2019. I may feature it in a future blog post so other parents can benefit from your experience. By pooling our collective knowledge on raising resilient, caring children, we can all become better parents.

The more stories we share, the more we expand our understanding of how to guide our kids through life’s ups and downs with compassion. I look forward to exchanging ideas and continuing this journey of raising children who will become caring, ethical leaders of tomorrow.

Anita Arora

I'm Anita, a loving mom to an energetic 8-year old daughter, Aanya, and my little smiley 2-year old Veer. Most days, I'm kept happily busy nurturing, teaching and playing imaginary games with my two growing kids. In those rare quiet moments when the kids are preoccupied, I unwind with parenting blogs and books - always trying to learn how to raise caring, mindful humans. I occasionally dabble in writing of my own, scribbling reflections on life with Aanya and Veer along with the epiphanies, mishaps and sweet milestones. I also love cooking, nature walks, reading and doing simple crafts with the kiddos. Though motherhood keeps me over-scheduled, I wouldn't trade these precious, messy years with my babies for anything.

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