The lifelong effects of empathic thinking

The Local's columnist Jessica Alexander, whose book 'The Danish Way of Parenting' focuses strongly on how Danes teach empathy, says we'd all be better off if we were more understanding and trusting of others.

The lifelong effects of empathic thinking
You would think that co-writing a parenting book would automatically make you an awesome parent. It doesn’t.  I have to constantly work at trying to make sure that what I say and do is in line with what I believe to be right. And one area in particular I struggle with is in teaching empathy.
The other day I was out with my daughter and son and they were scootering around in a park. They had invented an obstacle course where they raced down a hill weaving in and out of bushes and benches. I didn’t quite follow the trajectory but at some point my daughter got upset.
“Sebastian won the race because he cut in front of me! He was cheating,” Sophia said. 
I looked at the situation and began mentally consulting our book’s tips section. Find reason behind behaviour. Stay away from negative labels. Help her to find the reason and lead her to a positive identity conclusion if possible. 
“I don’t think he was cheating, do you? Maybe he didn’t understand the rules,” I responded.
Instead of her continuing on the cheater track, her face completely changed and she said she’d explain the rules to her brother. 
I was impressed by how quickly she saw it. How fast she changed. These days I notice she is doing this regularly without prompting from us.
When Sebastian is throwing a tantrum for what feels like hours she’ll say something like “maybe he’s hungry” or “he didn’t have his nap today, that’s probably why he is grumpy.”
I didn’t help teach her this naturally. I had to work at it. I had to practise saying things like “but she is really a sweet girl, isn’t she” when my daughter would tell me about a scuffle at school. 
“Maybe she had a bad day. You have those too right?” I’ll say. 
This is hard because sometimes, truth be told, I really want to go into her school and confront whoever upset her. I want to tell her “that girl is mean”. But I have chosen to try to help her find reason behind behaviour rather than intervening or trying to make her feel better by calling someone (a child at that) names. 
The reason teaching empathy makes such a difference in the long run is that it encourages trust in others. And trusting in others is very freeing. It frees us from our own negative thoughts and judgments, which can be incredibly imprisoning. This is not to say everyone is good or should be trusted but much of our distrust is self-chosen. And it is a huge waste of energy.
This is often seen in the workplace, where competition can be rife and there can be a tendency to interpret unclear behaviour with a negative conclusion: “He wants my job.” “She is a bitch.” “He is incompetent and lazy.” 
These story lines then get repeated and spun out to friends and partners and yet, this web ultimately serves to entrap the weaver of the negative storyline more than anyone else. These distrusting beliefs unwittingly put others on guard who become distrusting in turn. They can begin to affect performance, robbing positive energy and focus, disturbing sleep and even health. 
What if, instead we thought “He probably does want my job. I would want my job too. I’ll take that as a compliment.” “I am sure there was a miscommunication. She was frazzled. I can be like that too sometimes.” “I see he looks a bit sad. Maybe something is happening in his life to make him seem absent. I’ll ask if he’s ok.” 
All of these thoughts require much less energy and can bring forth a far better outcome. Being empathic and understanding makes us feel better, and when we feel better we work better. The black hole of paranoia and negativity is gone. 
Of course there are times when people shouldn’t be trusted or who are not healthy to be around. But then you choose a course of action wisely based on real evidence, not assumptions, when the time is right. 
Finding reason behind behaviour, or walking a mile in someone’s shoes, is so important because it ultimately helps us remain calm. Paranoia and distrust are stressful emotions that can fog our thinking, whereas calmness is contagious. Other people don’t get defensive sensing accusation. It makes us feel better to try to understand and connect to others. And that in itself is a worthy goal, even if it’s not an entirely altruistic one.
If instilled in children early, empathic thinking becomes a natural default setting for them as adults. They grow to be confident in the goodness of others and countless hours of energy are restored and used in more effective ways.
My daughter didn’t waste a moment thinking badly of her brother that day. She went to talk to him instead. She showed him the obstacle course again. And by not being called a cheater he didn’t get defensive and their game went on merrily. He still won the race in the end and she didn’t like that. But she knew the reason was not because he cheated, but because he was faster than she was. So she tried a lot harder the next time. A valuable lesson for all of us. At any age. 
Jessica AlexanderJessica Alexander is an American author who co-wrote 'The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World'. She has been married to a Dane for over 13 years and has always been fascinated by cultural differences. She speaks four languages and currently lives in Rome with her husband and two children. Her book can be purchased via Amazon and Saxo

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Is the Danish concept of free play in danger?

Parenting expert Jessica Alexander worries that even in Denmark, where play is seen as a necessary part of a child’s life, free play could be pushed out by a focus on competitiveness.

Is the Danish concept of free play in danger?
Can 'play' be packaged and sold? Photo: famveldman /Iris/Scanpix
I recently took a tour around the International School of Billund, Denmark which is backed by the Lego Foundation and situated in the Lego capital of the world, so to speak. 
For those who don’t know, Lego is a Danish brand and it is a combination of the words 'leg godt' or ‘play well’. It’s one of the building blocks of Denmark’s firm belief that children need a lot of unstructured playtime to be healthy.
Rows and rows of Lego-based learning could be seen throughout the school along with tinkering walls, creative corners and design centres where kids were making clothes in Project Runway style rooms as part of their after-school programming. The school is built on a philosophy of learning through play, and teachers strive to incorporate play and creativity into the curriculum at every stage, from kindergarten through students' early teens. This is special even for Denmark, where play is seen as a necessary part of a child’s life.
While I was there, I ran into a group of Harvard researchers who were working together with teachers to investigate what it means to put play at the heart of a school’s curriculum and how one measures this.  The idea is to create an educational framework and tools that can be used by other educators interested in making learning more playful. 
While I think this research is truly fascinating, I also feel a little bit nervous about it.
When my book ‘The Danish Way of Parenting’ was first released, I did several interviews with my co-author about play and what the future might look like in countries where free play had declined in favour of scheduled, adult-led activities. 
Some studies, for example, show that the amount of a child’s free play in America has dropped 50 percent since the 1950s just to put it in perspective.
One thing I kept repeating in these interviews was my fear that free play might one day become an oxymoron or commercialized. I was afraid that, as soon as it was proven to be serious learning, someone would surely want to measure it, package it and ultimately sell it. 
Let me say that the International School of Billund is not interested in selling its findings or quantifying the “learning results” for any toy or technique. School officials know that they are investigating something that is almost inherently unmeasurable, but they believe that it’s worth it if it empowers children to see learning as a pleasurable lifelong pursuit. I think what they are doing is very interesting and the school is brilliant.
My concern, however, is that at some point, somebody will try to quantify the concept of “play” and sell it. And the idea of charging for play feels a bit like selling an overpriced apple and labelling it as a diet product. It defeats what should just be a natural healthy part of life, not a specialized technique or super food. 
I can already foresee parents cutting back on the violin, Chinese and organic cupcake making lessons to enrol their kids in free play courses where children could get score cards on how much their social skills, negotiation and empathy capabilities increase. Where they can get graded for their collaboration, self-control and resiliency. All of these things, unfortunately, completely defeat the purpose of why play is so good in the first place. 
Free play is a child’s way of making sense of their worlds. It’s their way of coping with anxiety and expressing themselves and feeling in control of their own destiny. This is where some of their sense of self-esteem gets developed and this can’t be controlled, coaxed or measured by an adult. 
I often wonder if that competitive edge everyone wants to buy for their kids is cutting away at the very self-esteem we want to build up. What if kids really just need more freedom to feel in control of their own lives?
All of this pressure is coming from an ever increasingly competitive society. It’s not coming from kids. They are just mirroring what we want. If we could relax ourselves, sand down our competitive edges, let kids be kids and trust them more to trust in themselves, we might see a drop in anxiety and a true increase in happiness down the line. And wouldn’t those be measurable results we could be proud of?
Jessica AlexanderJessica Alexander is an American author who co-wrote 'The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World'. She has been married to a Dane for over 13 years and has always been fascinated by cultural differences. She speaks four languages and currently lives in Rome with her husband and two children. Her book can be purchased via Amazon and Saxo