Last night was a beautiful summer evening, so my family and I stayed out enjoying it well after dark. I had the baby and she wanted to look at the blinking lights in the shop windows. Those bright blinking lights are so appealing to babies. There were some loud people around, one man was especially loud but she ignored it all. I took her lead and let her little pointed finger determine where we would go next and what we would talk about.
At one point, she looked up at the night sky and as she looked up, I supported her soft little head so that she could look ALLLL the way up for as long as she wanted. At one point she realized I was supporting her head and I said “I’ve got you!” and gave her a gentle kiss. The whole feeling must have felt quite lovely because after the first gentle kiss, she touched my hand and leaned in for another gentle kiss. We did as many gentle kisses as she wanted and when she was done being kissed she just laid there, with my hand supporting her head, looking at the night sky.
In that moment, instead of following her gaze again, I looked up and realized that the tough, scruffy looking guy having a smoke and a beer had been watching us the whole time. He smiled at me and when our eyes connected I saw that by witnessing this interaction between my daughter and I, he had softened. He seemed to be more gentle also. We didn’t say anything, we just connected with our eyes and enjoyed the shared peaceful moment. I thought perhaps that by witnessing our tenderness, we had triggered his empathetic response and he was now experiencing this soft, lovely evening, just as we were. He was no longer fronting or swaggering, he was there with us, peaceful and gentle.
The empathetic response is really so amazing. It has an actual name “Emotional Contagion” but I’m not sure how many people recognize that name. his response happens regularly but we’re often unconscious to it.
I unschool my kids right now but this was the first full back to school week for local kids and I was noticing the range of responses. For some kids, the return to school this week was still exciting. For others it was already becoming a familiar routine. And for some, they had strong reactions, especially on Sunday night and Monday morning.
Having supply taught and worked in Ontario public schools as a teacher, I know that school and classroom environments vary widely. Some are lovely and inclusive and non-judging while others have power dynamics and subtle undertones. Think for a moment how your child’s learning environment triggers their emotional contagion.(If your child is sensitive, you’ll probably be more aware of their empathetic response.)
Loving and kind gestures within your child’s earshot and eyesight will likely trigger them to also feel loved and cared for. They’ll be willing to take risks and approach life with a sense of curiosity. If your child is in an environment where they witness harshness and power-over dynamics, even if it is not done *to them*, they may respond as though it was. A power-over environment can encourage a child to experiment with their own power-over behavior (aka bully culture). Or they may react with tears Sunday night or Monday morning or “clingy” or eager to please behavior when you are together. They may appear agitated and aggressive as their fight response runs its course through their body. They may not even be able to articulate it because as adults, we are often unconscious of it ourselves. In fact, as children, we were often taught to dismiss our own unidentified, uneasy feelings by our well-meaning care-givers, though the most sensitive of us find that an impossible task. But as parents caring for our children in conscious ways, we can choose something different.
If your child is loving school, I am celebrating their joy with you. There is nothing better than seeing your child feeling confident and content. If your child is signaling distress, I encourage you to be their support and advocate. Alternatives exist. Your responses have a big influence on how they value themselves and interpret the world. Their empathetic response is triggered all the time and helping them to develop an awareness of it will honor their experience and give them a stronger voice and advocate.