PEP Blog


What’s Better Than the Golden Rule? Empathy in Action!

By Brian Lewis, MD

The Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. – “It’s Time to Stop Following The Golden Rule”, Irina Cozma, Harvard Business Review

What if what you would like is not what they would like? … What if one doesn’t particularly love oneself? – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

I get it. Your parenting begins and ends with the Golden Rule. Your parents raised you this way. Yet, at the risk of contradicting your parents, let me suggest you leave the Golden Rule behind. Replace it with something even better: empathy in action. Let me know if I convince you by sharing my top five recommendations. Starting in reverse order …

Recommendation #5: Use Empathy to Get Into Your Child’s World

Let’s start with the not very radical assumption that you and your child have completely different thoughts, goals and ideas. If your kids are anything like my teens, they prefer to pick their own food, clothes and music. Just mentioning my preferences can send my kids running in the other direction.

So, whereas the Golden Rule would have us treat each other according to our own wishes, nobody in our home seems to want someone else to decide what’s best for them! When we make dinner plans for the week, we invite everyone’s input, which makes it so much more likely that everyone will come to dinner!

My point is – we try learning more about our children’s perspectives.

Effectively peeking into a child’s head requires more listening than speaking. At best, it’s active listening: eye contact, when helpful. Nonjudgmental facial expressions work well. Few questions. But when questions are needed, the most productive ones are open-ended. Noted parenting author Jane Nelsen calls these “curiosity questions”:

  • What happened?
  • What were you trying to accomplish?
  • How do you feel about what happened?

If, and only if, your child is still interested in sharing, you might try:

  • What did you learn from this?
  • How can you use what you learned in the future?
  • What ideas do you have for solutions now?

Just listening without bringing our own agenda or feelings (particularly upset feelings) gives our kids powerful encouragement.

Curiosity questions that convey empathy and an open heart help us understand our children’s thoughts and ideas. They tell us which thoughts are well-formed versus those that need our help. Equipped with this information, parents can get out of the way when kids are fully capable, encourage when needed or provide training. Unlike the Golden Rule, which operates from our needs, empathy is our prompt to learn “What are the hopes, goals and needs of my child?

Recommendation #4: Use Empathy to End Backtalk

The Golden Rule was not enough to solve disrespectful language in our home. Whether you call it disrespectful language or backtalk, this topic is one of the most popular workshops offered by the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) of Kensington, Maryland. The course is built around the concept “If it’s received as disrespect, then it’s disrespect.”

This approach is helpful and simple. Cursing, name-calling and disparagement are easily and indisputably identified as out of bounds when the targeted family member decides. They are the judge, end of story, no appeals. This eliminates the all-too-common debate:

  • Was that disrespectful?”
  • “Was that bad enough to warrant parental action?”

What I find neat about this approach is that it’s a twist on the foundational empathy question “What do you need?” Fortunately, this approach gave our family a clear and irrefutable way to end most disrespectful and foul language in the home.

To implement this approach, we asked each of our family members to agree on this simple definition of disrespect. We came up with mutually agreeable consequences for cursing and name-calling. An added benefit is that this approach sets kind, firm and clear limits.

Recommendation #3: Use Empathy to Anticipate and Take Responsibility for How We Affect Others

We can all model empathy in our own homes, our challenging “labs for learning.” While the parents provide top-level leadership, we build next generation leaders in our families by implementing age-appropriate models and encouragement for equal respect. Each family member has a powerful voice in their choices and the family’s.

Empathy-building opportunities arise all the time, particularly during uncomfortable conversations. For instance, a hurt family member was recently told, “If you took it that way, that’s on you”, in this case adding insult to an injury.

I have considered this conversation many times because it troubled me. For me, these words lacked empathy in that they lacked interest and anticipation of how our words and actions may affect others. Anticipating and taking ownership of our words and impact on others is integral to my parenting goals of building family connections, opening and increasing communication and providing training as needed.

In this case, we explained to our teen how “that’s on you” might convey “I know you’re hurting but I don’t really care.” Children who can make the shift from “that’s on you” to “that’s on me” grow into accountable and responsible adults.

And giving feedback raises empathy issues. Knowing it can be hard for others to accept criticism

  • we can imagine how criticism might feel and be received.
  • We can find the right time, ask permission to share, confirm that feedback is welcome, clearly describe what happened and offer recommendations if appropriate.
  • We can promote two-way conversation.
  • We all need to be able to withstand and process uncomfortable conversations when we hurt others or need feedback.

Learning to take feedback without deflecting or denying is a goal we and our kids can always practice.

Recommendation #2: Learn and Practice Effective Apologies (Empathy in Action)

Sadly, our best parenting efforts will sometimes unintentionally miss the mark or even hurt our children. Of course. We begin with our ideas of what might help our kids.

When we miss the mark, apologies provide empathy in action to restore damaged connections. Here is a summary of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Professor Emeritus Everett Worthington’s sage advice (taken from evworthington-forgiveness.com/) on how to apologize:

Plan how you will:

  • C – Confess without excuse, being specific about what you’re sorry for.
  • O – Offer a sincere, articulate apology and intend never to do it again.
  • N – Note the other person’s pain. Acknowledge that your actions were hurtful.
  • F – Forever value the relationship. Explain that you want to restore it.
  • E – Equalize. Ask how you can make it up to the person.
  • S – Say, mean and promise that you will not do it again.
  • S – Seek forgiveness by asking “Can you forgive me?”

Recommendation #1: Empathy at its Best: Simply Ask Loved Ones What They Need

In one of my favorite parenting workshop homework assignments, parents must ask their child “What do I do that makes you feel loved and encouraged?” This extraordinarily clever, efficient “curiosity question” sends two powerful messages at once.

  • First, our children learn that parents can ask, rather than assume they know what kids need.
  • Second, we model empathy so our kids can learn to employ it. They must learn to employ empathy to become successful, loving adults. All of this happens when we simply ask loved ones what they need. This is not a lesson that derives from the Golden Rule, as it requires imagination and recognition that people’s needs differ, and it requires taking action to learn someone else’s perspectives and needs.

Author Gary Chapman recommended taking such action in his 1992 bestseller “The Five Love Languages.” He recommended that we identify and repeat behaviors that effectively communicate our love according to the needs and preferences of individual family members. So, while some spouses feel loved when receiving words of affirmation, others need quality time, gifts, acts of service and/or physical touch. Chapman saw specific behaviors as a key to unlock how we feel loved.

To close … how could we possibly know which specific behaviors tell our children that we love them? We simply ask them what they need. That’s empathy in action!

This article appears in the April 2023 issue of Washington Parent magazine.


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Parent Encouragement Program
10100 Connecticut Ave.
Kensington, MD 20895

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