Love, Limits & Empathy

Since this is opening article for The Successful Parent, it seems appropriate that we begin our discussion by trying to identify some of the most basic ingredients of the parent-child relationship. In other words, if someone were to ask "What are the three most important aspects of parenting?", what would our answer be? To my way of thinking, the basic building blocks of all parent-child relationships are love, limits, and empathy. Okay, that sounds great, but what exactly does it mean? Let's look at some basic definitions and then consider how each element contributes to children's overall development.


"Love" conjures up all kinds of ideas and associations ranging from a deep feeling of attachment and desire to simply providing for the wants and needs of another. These certainly can apply and have a place in the discussion, but what we want to focus on is how we can define love in terms of the way a parent feels toward his or her child. For those of you who are already experienced parents, you may have no problem in immediately accessing that feeling you have for your children, but others of you may find yourselves having feelings of ambivalence, especially if your children are difficult to handle or cause you undue stress. For our purposes, let's talk about love from the vantage point of two specific ideas: attachment and dependency.

When children are first born, they are wholly dependent upon the care provided by the parent(s). As the parent attends to the child and provides for all the physical needs such as feeding, bathing, changing, etc., and, more importantly, daily nurturing, the child builds up an attachment to the parent and that attachment is characterized by a positive sense of trust. This is the first experience of love that the child receives from the parent and is actually the basic building block for the ongoing relationship with not only the parent(s), but later with others.

Over time, this attachment deepens and becomes more complex as the parent attends to the increasing dependency needs that require not only physical care and nurturing, but also daily guidance, attention, and at times, play and entertainment during those early years. In fact, dependency remains a basic need for much of childhood and into adolescence until children begin to form their own identities. Love is the capacity to provide for these basic dependency needs while allowing for the development of a strong, positive attachment that is based on the parents' ability to meet both the child's emotional and physical needs. So far, then, we see that love entails much more than positive feelings towards the child. It is an active part of the relationship that is based on nurturing and the parent's ability to allow the child to be dependent. Independence is an outgrowth of having first been dependent.


As the child grows, love begins to have a second demand and that is the demand to set limits. Actually, limit-setting can be one of the more difficult tasks of parenting because it requires that we set aside our desire to always see our children "happy." Further, it requires us to be consistent, which any parent knows takes a lot of energy.

Why are limits so important? Because they teach our children how to function in the world. If parents don't set limits early in life, life will set those limits in a big way, often resulting in suffering that could have been avoided. A second outgrowth of limit-setting is the development of self-discipline and the formation of a conscience. (See "Helping Children Build a Conscience). We know that we must set consistent limits for our child so that he or she can internalize our strength, and begin to form some sense of safety in the world that comes from the ability to contain one's own impulses and behave in productive ways. Limit-setting usually begins around eighteen months of age when your child is able to walk fairly easily, and has developed enough cognition (brain power) to become interested in the world around him. What a delightful world it is, and isn't it fun to touch and handle everything. Better yet, what can be picked up probably tastes good too! If you have young children, you know all about that. In any case, limit-setting may begin at a young age, but it continues right up until the time your children become adults and leave home, and sometimes longer if they have difficulty growing up. Moreover, limit-setting becomes increasingly difficult in these later years because children become teens, and they certainly feel they know more than you ever have or will. Nevertheless, all children, regardless of age, need parents to hold the line, especially when it is in their best interest. Setting limits is an act of love. It prepares your child for adult life.


Finally, we need to consider the whole idea of empathy. Empathy simply defined means the capacity to put oneself in another's place and understand how they feel and what their point of view is. Easier said than done. Most people think we naturally come by empathy, but that's not necessarily true. Definitely, some are more predisposed to being empathetic than others, but it is up to parents to teach their children how to be empathetic. So, why is empathy important? It is the basis of all successful relationships, and the basis of having a fully activated conscience. It is what keeps us from taking advantage of others, from committing crimes, and from bringing harm to our fellow neighbor. More than that, the capacity for empathy is the foundation of all of the higher aspirations of human beings. On the basic level, it is what makes one a good citizen. On a grander scale, it is what drives saints such as Mother Teresa. Without the ability to empathize with others, we would perish as a species.

So, now that I have your attention, the questions is, "How do I teach my child to be empathetic?". There are several ways. First and foremost is by example. In other words, your child will naturally internalize your feelings and behavior towards him or her. Simply put, if you treat your child with empathy and understanding, he will treat others the same way. That means that you have to see your child as a separate person who has his own individual temperament, own ideas (however naïve they may be), and likes and dislikes. He also has his own feelings. The parent(s)' job is to try and understand who your child is, what drives him, how he reacts to things, and then to verbalize these things in such a way that he feels understood. If I had to put anything in capital letters here, it would be to treat your child with the same respect you would like to have from others. Understand his point of view even if it clashes with yours. The point is to allow your child to express himself.

You might be saying "and what about the stuff she said about limit-setting?" "Am I supposed to be so understanding that they can just do what they want because that's how they feel?" No, No, and No!!! You listen to how they feel, you see if you can bend to their wishes if it is the right thing to do, and you do treat them respectfully even when they are opposing you. However, part of learning empathy is to examine how one's feelings and desires are going to impact others. If your child takes your brand new stopwatch outside to time himself running the 50-yard dash without permission, and then leaves the watch on the ground resulting in damage to it, you might be able to sympathize with the desire to improve his running speed and the need to time the sprints using a good timing device that just happened to be handy (and you weren't around to ask for permission at the time). You can sympathize with all of that, and even say so, but what about your child's capacity to understand how you might feel when someone takes something of yours without permission and then destroys it out of carelessness? You must drive this point home and the way you do that is simply by offering consequences. Not yelling, and not in any way that is degrading to you child, but you do want them to know you are displeased. They should feel remorse in having destroyed something of yours, and that remorse needs to be based in the ability to feel empathy for you. The consequences might be having them replace the stopwatch with allowances and extra money they earn working, writing an apology that expresses how they might feel if the same had happened to them, or better writing out how they have felt when someone else was careless with something of theirs. The point is, you must help your child develop a natural sense of empathy for others as well as remorse when an infraction is committed. Then, give them the chance to repair the situation. This will avoid excessive guilt (self-deprecating guilt) which is not healthy, but will teach remorse which is necessary and a part of having empathy for others.

Final Thoughts

To summarize, then, I think we can say that what's been offered here is really an expanded definition of parent-child love. Love is first based on the development of a positive attachment with the parent(s) that fulfills early dependency needs, and then is shaped by the process of setting limits and teaching empathy both through our interaction with our child, and through the child's interactions with others. So, not only are love, limits, and empathy the building blocks of the parent-child relationship, they are the key to the child's healthy psychological growth and capacity to have fulfilling adult relationships in the future. In fact, we go on learning these lessons our whole lives, but hopefully, if we can provide a solid base for our children early on, the lessons will not be too painful but rather lead to joy and fulfillment.

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