How we accidentally erase our children’s individuality

By Carolina DiazCarolina is a Chilean journalist and a mother of two under ten. She recently founded a start-up, Memoria Creativa, where she collects the memories of families and the stories of people. It´s the first time she is her own boss, and she loves it!

August 6, 2012

To practice empathy, another person needs to be involved–someone we consider completely different from ourselves, with a style, interests, feelings, emotions and tastes totally their own and separate from ours. 

With our kids we generally tend to sweep away those differences during day-to-day life as a way to feel close to them. We use a language that doesn’t pave the way towards empathy, because we don’t see them as separate beings with unique and personal inner worlds that we should respect and understand, even though we might not necessarily share it. We leave them out, because deep down we’re only refering to ourselves, using the comfort of “we.”

Let’s not get used to speaking for our children, thinking for them, feeling for them, and instead open the door to plenty of surprises which will most certainly begin appearing, because they will now have the space to do so. Let’s use names and pronouns; let’s say me, you, he and she. Each pronoun represents us as people. Let’s put the use of “we” on ice for some time, while we concentrate on using this new way of expressing ourselves.

Using the corresponding pronouns helps children, and especially helps us, to place ourselves beyond them: to view them as people, to understand them. Only from this place will we be able to empathize with them, feel their pain and support them when necessary or participate in their joys by their side. And all these moments of empathy, remember, will add up in a marvellous savings account of sorts, which kids will be able to access in moments when, due to our lack of time or bad mood, we cannot be empathetic.

If we transform into beings with several heads we won’t know what is going on in our children’s minds, because our feelings will become those of our child. We’ll lose out on what he or she is feeling.  With this nuance of language choice, we’ll be laying down the ground rules on differentiating individuals: an essential condition for empathy.

See the key difference between these pairs of examples?

“Shall we do some work?” / “It’s time for you to do some work”.
“Shall we eat something nice?” / “I feel like preparing something nice, do you fancy joining me?”
“We really enjoyed the walk!” / “I really enjoyed our walk, James, did you enjoy yourself?”
“We made pizza and it was delicious”. / “Annita prepared this pizza, I only helped a little bit”.
“Shall we watch TV?” / “Would you like to watch TV with me?”
“It’s cold, let’s put on a coat” / “I’m cold, I’m going to put on my coat”.
“We’re so tired!” / “I’m so tired, I’m exhausted after the hike. How do you feel?”

Translated from Spanish by Kate Estivill



  • Sherry Enrico

    Dear Carolina, While looking for teaching positions in Bhutan I came upon this article you have written. While I do not often use the word “we” as a substitute for “you”, I need to be reminded that our children are separate individuals with rich and unique inner worlds. Really, this is something that I forget on a gut level and my children do as well. The interesting thing is this is true even of adult children as mine are. It just occurred to me why grandchildren and grandparents have a much easier time of it – each cherishes the individuality of the otherand want to know who this person is inside. I live abroad and have for many years so my relationship with my daughters is not traditional. Still, when we visit, there is a sort of tightrope we walk in order to maintain our relationships. I feel so sad each time this happens and I am confused by it too. Now, after reading your words, I believe it is fairly simple, each of us feel “unknown” by the very one we love so dee. I have certinly not focused on who my daughters are deep inside. So thank you Carolina…now the small sounds of my granddaughter is making her way up to my bedroom and just said “I am excited to come up and find you here today” . Me too.