Walk a Mile in My Shoes

Back in my day, we didn’t have text messaging. We had to actually call our friends. And, when we wanted to call our friends, we had to either use a pay phone or go to someone’s house. There was no Hotmail, no MySpace, and no UTube. We sometimes had to wait hours to get information from our friends!

That’s how the story sounds when I talk to teenagers. It’s a slight update from the “walking to school, in the snow, uphill both ways” story my parents’ generation told me when they were trying to tell me how good I had it. In any event, it’s a story designed to elicit empathy from a teen and it’s as pointless an exercise now as it was in my parents’ time.

Teens do not develop empathy for you based on what you tell them. Sharing stories of your plights just sounds like complaining to them and they pretty much tune it out. Instead, teens can develop empathy for your struggles only when they must experience them first-hand, which typically doesn’t happen for about another 5-10 years.

It’s not until they have to pay a $400 electric bill that they really understand they’ve got to use the air conditioner less. It’s not until they have gotten up for work, 3 days in a row, with a terrible cold, that they learn not to use their sick days to go see the next Spiderman movie with friends on the very day it comes out. And, it’s not until they have their own precious baby girl go out in clothes a prostitute would envy that they truly understand the terror you experienced while you were raising them. And, again, that’s 5, 10, or 15 years from today… a long time to wait.

However, there is a way to rush that process up little bit. Although teens have very little empathy for you naturally, they have been watching you for well over a decade. They really know you much better than either of you would probably suspect. Powerful role playing techniques that put a teen into the role of the parent allow the teen to speak ‘as’ the parent, rather than to speak as themselves, about the parent, can help build empathy.

One technique is called, “role reversal.” You have one person take on the role of another person and behave as that person would behave. They should stand like that person would stand, slouching or straight. They should use the types of words that person uses. If that person does not swear, they would not swear when acting as that person. They would use all the knowledge that the person has, even if the role player himself doesn’t actually have that knowledge. That is, a 14-year-old son doesn’t know what it’s like to pay a mortgage, but his dad does and he should ‘use’ his dad’s knowledge when he’s in dad’s role and speak freely about things that dad knows about.

A parent might use a role reversal when a teen is pressuring a parent to do something the parent does not want to do. Instead of having an argument, the parent could just call, “Role Reverse!” and tell the teen that they are placing them temporarily in the role of the parent. Warm the teen up to serving in that role. Interview them as the parent first. Ask them their name and they need to respond with the parents’ name. Ask them their age and they need to respond with the parents’ age. Ask them a number of questions about ‘their’ life and ‘their’ kids, to be sure that they are in the mindset of being that parent.

Then ask them the question that the teen asked. Say something like, “Mother, it seems that your daughter here would like to get a tattoo when she goes down to Mexico. Did you know that? Get a response. Ask, “What do you think of that, Mother?” Get a response. Ask a number of questions, letting the teen respond, as the parent, each time.

Frequently, the teen will pop right into the parental role and begin lecturing about how that’s not safe or sanitary or how the child should wait until they’re 18 or some other more ‘parental’ message. However, a smart teen will think that you’ll let them do it if they, as the parent, say it’s okay. That’s fine. Let them say okay, but then question them as to the consequences you’re really worried about.

Ask them, “Mother, what if your daughter gets AIDS from an infected needle?” Get a response. Ask them, “What if they get a design that they absolutely hate in 10 years?” Get a response. Ask them, “What if they get their boyfriend’s name and then they break up?” Get a response.

Again, most teens will provide fairly sensible answers, that will probably have you thinking it’s an okay idea for them to go ahead and get a tattoo. In that case, what’s actually happened is that you’ve developed some empathy for them, which isn’t a bad thing at all. However, they’ve also heard you about how scared you are that they’ll get AIDS or have regrets, and you got them to hear that without an argument.

They may still want the tattoo and they may still get the tattoo, but they may have developed enough empathy to at least ask you to go with them to assuage your fears about the sanitation or about their choice of design, which is a much preferable solution to them going with their friends and picking what everyone else is getting that day.

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