Our last three posts about empathy have looked at what it isn’t, a summary of what it is and last time the first of the four ingredients of empathy – taking  a child’s-eye of the world (seeing the world through their eyes).

Dr Teresa Wiseman breaks down empathy into 4 parts: we have to:

1. See the world as others see it

2. Be non-judgmental

3. Understand another’s feelings, and

4. Communicate that understanding*

Get the audio version of this post on ‘Jonny 24/7’ – here…


Today we’re looking at this idea of being ‘Non-judgmental.’

Now this isn’t something anyone’s going to argue with. We all acknowledge that being judgmental isn’t acceptable in professional child care.

And yet we all do it. I do it. You do it. And we all know other folk who do it.

I’m not talking about that horrible judgmental, condemning stuff some people say – ‘They’re all little sh*ts and they should be locked up!’ – that’s the stereotype. None of us believe that stuff.

I’m talking about something much more subtle…

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Subtle judgmentalism…

Even those of us who sincerely believe in taking a non-judgmental approach to child care – who consider ourselves to be genuinely child-centred in our practice – we all fall short of what kids need from us.

Here’s what I mean:

Discourse Dilution – this happens when we assume we know what children mean, when we interpret their words and put our own spin on them; this is judgmental. NOT because we are directly judging THEM – putting negative attributions on who they are, etc. – but by assuming we understand, without really making the effort to do so. We’ve all done it!

–  Emotional Expression (pigeon-holing) – this is when we ‘rate’ the strength, sincerity, poignancy or genuineness of children’s expressed feelings. We all find ourselves exposed to children’s feelings. And we all make snap judgments, in our minds (internally), about the strength, meaning and importance of those feelings. We rate them in some way – this is judgmental.

– Partial Participation – when we ‘involve’ children in decision-making, ask their views or consult them about something, without any real intention of taking fully into account what they say to us . We very rarely, if ever, allow the expressed views of the child to drive what we ultimately do. In effect, this ‘judges’ their view as less relevant than ours.

Now, before you start throwing stuff at me, I know this stuff isn’t easy. I know that we just can’t let kids have their way in some of the major decisions about their lives – child protection being an obvious example – it’s not feasible.

But there are plenty of other times when we can. And we should. If we don’t, then we are effectively judging them and their preferences as unimportant.

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Time is the only answer to this.

– Discourse Dilution – if we are to fully understand what children are saying to us, we need to ask again and again. We need to delay giving advice or guidance and rushing to try and ‘fix’ things or even to comfort them too quickly. Instead let’s have them tell us in different words and then to reflect back and make sure we’ve grasped their meaning. We have to really, really listen. They may use words we recognise, but without their interpretation, we’re left filling in too many blanks and we lose their true perspective.

– Emotional Expression – the true extent of the child’s feelings may be either lesser or greater than our interpretation of what they express. Again, this needs fuller exploration if we are to get an accurate sense of what going on for them. We need to lean into the child’s emotional expression – make it OK, ask them to describe how they’re feeling and (again!) really listen!

– Partial Participation – for this, I think we either need to let kids participate and do it properly, or not do it at all. There really isn’t a half way point. In fact, the half- way point is what we want to avoid at all costs – giving the message that your view counts and then, having heard it, do nothing with it. Maybe the answer is to choose what aspects of their care can be placed under their direct influence, and focus our participation efforts into those things?

Get the audio version of this post on ‘Jonny 24/7’ – here…

Final word

I’ve chosen three things here, but the list is far from exhaustive. But there is a principle driving this whole idea of non-judgmentalism that applies to any aspect of practice that seeks to be truly empathic –  it’s called child-centrism!

Truly child-centred practice is practice that centres itself on the child (no charge for that one! :0) More specifically…

Child-centred practice focuses on, listens intently to and seeks – above everything else – to serve the child by understanding their situation, feelings and aspirations – Jonny Matthew

Apply this principle to any aspect of judgmental practice and we reverse it instantly!

Previous related posts

– How to teach empathy to troubled teens – part 1…

How to teach empathy to troubled teens – part 2…

– Empathy 1 – What It Isn’t… (get the audio version of this post as part of the ‘Total Blog’ package on ‘Jonny 24/7’ – here)

– Empathy 2 – What exactly is it?…  (get the audio version of this post on ‘Jonny 24/7’ – here)

– Empathy 3 – A child’s-eye view…  (get the audio version of this post on ‘Jonny 24/7’ – here)

– Empathy 5 – Understanding another’s feelings…  (get the audio version of this post on ‘Jonny 24/7’ – here)–

– Empathy 6 – Communicate Our Understanding… (get the audio version on ‘Jonny 24/7’ – here)


*Wiseman, T. (1996) A Concept Analysis of Empathy. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 1996,23,1162-1167 – download.

Gordon, M. (2009) Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child, The Experiment, New York – p.31 – learn more here.

Pass it on…

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© Jonny Matthew 2018

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