The Key to Empathy: Imagining the Unimaginable

Have you ever looked up at the night sky on a clear night to see the North Star? If you can spot the Big Dipper, follow the line from the dipper to a very bright star named Polaris. This star helped seafarers navigate for centuries. It’s very, very far away – over 300 light years – but it appears so bright because it’s 30 times the size of our own sun! How far away is 300 light years? Well it’s hard to imagine, but let me try to help you. The fastest jet in the world travels at 2,200 mph. The ISS space station travels at 16,000 mph to stay in orbit. And one spacecraft, the Parker Solar Probe, aided by a slingshot maneuver, achieved 400,000 mph. But what if a spacecraft could head towards Polaris going 1 million mph, how long would it take to get there? The answer: about 25,000 years. That’s how far away it is. I know, it’s nearly impossible to imagine 25,000 years. Our Milky Way galaxy, which has about a hundred billion stars, is only one of many galaxies. The “nearby” Andromeda galaxy is 2.5 million light years away. The distances in the universe are unimaginably vast. Can you remember all this the next time you look up at the North Star?

The next time you look into the face of your child, it may help to appreciate that there’s much that’s hard to imagine. What is it like to be that young person? Every individual, including your child, is a mixture of thoughts, feelings, memories, imaginings, knowledge, skills, experiences, values, attitudes, strengths, experiences, weaknesses, hopes, fears, and more. And your growing child is a “work in progress,” slowly building all these attributes with the aim of someday making a happy, successful, independent life. Can you remember what it was like to be a child? I’ve tried hard to remember what it was like, and I achieved only a dim understanding. It’s kind of like trying to appreciate the distance to Polaris, the North Star.

But to achieve empathy for your child, which is the key to being the kind of parent you hope to be, you need to make this effort. Even if you’re only partially successful, if you hope to draw close to your child, you need to try to penetrate this barrier of separateness to appreciate what’s going on with them in the present moment. So you can listen to understand. So you can see their point of view. So you can appreciate their needs. So you can encourage. So you can jointly and creatively resolve conflict. So when things aren’t going well, you can keep from reacting emotionally.

They can’t do this. But you have to. 3 Simple Steps to Empathy

In my book, Connect with Your Kid, I go into listening and empathy in detail, along with 9 other important parent-child communication skills.


This book, along with Parents Coaching Parents, will help you make change happen.