Integrating Self and Other
Ron and Sandy were fed up. Their seven-year-old, Colin, was a good kid. He didn’t cause trouble at school, his friends and their parents liked him, and he generally did what he was supposed to do. But he was, in his parents’ words, “totally and incurably selfish.” He always grabbed the last slice of pizza, even if he still had some on his plate. He begged for a puppy, then showed no interest in even playing with it, much less using the pooper scooper. Even after growing out of his toys, he still refused to let his younger brother play with them.
Ron and Sandy knew that a certain amount of egocentrism in children is normal. And they didn’t want to change Colin’s personality—they wanted to love him for who he was. But at times it drove them crazy that he often seemed incapable of thinking about other people. When it came to relational skills like empathy, kindness, and consideration, Colin just seemed to be missing the development of that circuit.
The breaking point came one day after school when Colin disappeared into the bedroom he shared with his five-year-old brother, Logan. Ron was in the kitchen when he heard yelling from the boys’ room. He went to investigate and discovered a distraught Logan, furious with his big brother and crying over a pile of artwork and trophies. Colin had decided to “redecorate” the room. He had taken down all of Logan’s watercolor paintings and marker drawings hanging on the walls and replaced them with his own posters and baseball cards, which he’d taped in rows across the largest wall in the room. In addition, he had removed Logan’s two soccer trophies from the shelf and set up his own bobblehead dolls in their place. Colin had piled all of Logan’s belongings in a corner of the room, he explained, “so they wouldn’t be in the way.”
When Sandy got home she and Ron talked about their frustration with their older son. They sincerely believed that there was no malice in Colin’s actions. In fact, that was almost the problem: he never even considered Logan’s feelings enough to intend to hurt him. He redecorated the room for the same reason he always took the last slice of pizza: he just didn’t think about others.
This issue is a common one for parents. We want our kids to be caring and considerate so they can enjoy meaningful relationships. Sometimes we fear that because they’re not as kind (or compassionate or grateful or generous) as we want them to be, they never will be. Of course, we can’t expect a seven-year-old to behave as if he were an enlightened adult. Sure, we want our kids to become men and women who are strong and forgiving and respectful and loving, but that’s a bit much to expect of someone who’s just recently learned to tie his shoes.
However, while it’s important to trust the process and know that much of what we want for our kids will emerge only over time, we can prepare them and steer them toward becoming children, teens, and ultimately adults who are fully capable of participating in relationships and considering the feelings of others. Some people simply have fewer neural connections in their circuitry in charge of empathy and relationships. Just like kids who have trouble reading need to practice and grow those connections in their brain, kids who have difficulty relating to others need to have those connections encouraged and cultivated. And just as a learning disability is a sign of a mental challenge, so is an inability to feel someone else’s pain. It’s a developmental issue, not necessarily a character problem. Even children who don’t seem predisposed to connection and compassion can learn what it means to be in relationship, and to fulfill the responsibilities that come with it.
That’s what this chapter is about. Most of the information we’ve provided in earlier chapters focuses on how to help develop your child’s whole brain in order to develop a strong and resilient sense of “me.” But like Ron and Sandy, you know that kids need just as much help understanding what it means to become part of a “we,” so that they can be integrated with others. In fact, in our ever-changing modern society, learning to move from “me” to “we” may be essential for how our children will be able to adapt in our future world.
Helping children become a participating member of a “we” while not losing touch with their individual “me” is a tall order for any parent. But happiness and fulfillment result from being connected to others while still maintaining a unique identity. That’s also the essence of mindsight, which you’ll remember is all about seeing your own mind, as well as the mind of another. It’s about developing fulfilling relationships while maintaining a healthy sense of self.
In the previous chapter we discussed the first aspect of mindsight, seeing and understanding our own mind. We talked about helping kids become aware of and integrate the many different parts of themselves via the wheel of awareness. The key concept in this aspect of mindsight is personal insight.
Now we want to turn our attention to the second aspect of mindsight, developing the ability to see and connect with the minds of others. This connection depends on empathy, on recognizing the feelings, desires, and perspectives of another. Ron and Sandy’s son seemed to need empathy skills. In addition to developing and integrating his whole brain and the different parts of himself, he needed to be given lots of practice at seeing things from other people’s perspectives, seeing other people’s minds. He needed to develop this second aspect of mindsight.
Insight + Empathy = Mindsight
Insight and empathy. If we can encourage these attributes in our kids, we will give them the gift of mindsight, offering them awareness about themselves, and connection with those around them. But how do we do that? How do we encourage our kids to connect with family, friends, and the world while cultivating and maintaining their own individual sense of self? How do we help them learn to share? To get along with siblings? To negotiate playground politics? To communicate well and consider others’ feelings? The answers to all these questions emerge from the me-we connection, which we can understand by first looking at how the brain participates in the creation of relationships.