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The Big Parenting Mistake We All Make

05/19/2013 11:18 am ET | Updated Jul 19, 2013

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

I hold hands with my daughter Zoe, as she falls asleep each night. She is almost eleven, and her spirit, her soul and her being, are much brighter and stronger than her physical body. The other night, Zoe asked me why people always stare at her.

"When?" I wanted to know. "Where?"

"Every where, all the time" came her easy reply. "Kids". She sighed. "They stare a lot." Her words came slowly, slurred from fatigue.

"Hmm," I began, "I suppose they stare at you because they are curious. You're cute." I add, tickling her. "And maybe, because they don't know you, haven't seen you before." My voice fades as I search for the right words to have this same conversation we have had before, how to explain why kids react in public when they see her in her pink power wheelchair or walker.

"Do people ever stare at you?" Zoe asks this time.

"Yes!" I reply quickly, "Sometimes people are surprised that I am so tall, and they look at me longer when I stand up or walk into a room." I pause then, unsure which words to use to explain to my daughter just how insensitive strangers can be, when Zoe says... "It's because your different, Mom. That's why they look at you."

In Rebecca Saxe's TEDTalk, "How We Read Each Other's Minds," she explores the process through which our brain thinks about other people's thoughts and actions and the nueroscience possibilities of exploring this function. Saxe teaches "We have a special brain system that lets us think about what other people are thinking. This system takes a long time to develop."

Adults are really good at understanding the thoughts of others. Children -- not so much. Saxe tells us the part of the brain responsible for thinking about others' minds reaches maximum growth during adulthood.

What does this tell me as a parent? That it's my job to encourage empathy, it is my responsibility to teach my children how to think the thoughts of others, and to think sympathetically.

In our house, my older daughter Olivia, sees every aspect of Zoe's special needs, she has been to therapy and doctor's appointments, and from their little girl dance sessions knows firsthand her sister can stand only for a few minutes unassisted without losing her balance. She knows Zoe's muscles are too weak to walk large areas. Yet still, it wasn't long ago when we were at the mall, and I was searching for an accessible parking space, that Olivia grumbled impatiently, "Why do we have to take Zoe's wheelchair?" I turned to Olivia then and out of frustration said, "Don't you think that Zoe would rather walk?"

Encouraging empathy is a science of parenting, requiring us to teach our children by example and by conversation to consider the perspectives of others. Saxe's research shows us that unlike adults, our children are not hard wired to understand others. Yet, sadly, we have experienced time after time how it is children who most often who lack the emotional intelligence of empathy.

Zoe and I were at our neighborhood Target on a fun shopping errand when we came across a young family at the snack bar. Zoe immediately said hello to the younger kindergarten age girl, hoping to engage her. The older sister just stared at Zoe, and stared and stared. As we moved to get our drinks, the girl started badgering her mom, "just ask her, ask her, ask her." And I felt my fingers start clenching into fists as I waited. Zoe was very close, and I tried to move away from her a bit, anticipating that this Mom was going to ask me something about Zoe-something I would not want her to hear. So, when the mom began to speak loudly and expectantly saying, "She wants to know what's wrong with your daughter," my reply was strident yet my body trembled.

"Nothing is wrong with my daughter, she uses a wheelchair and you should teach your child kindness."

It was not my finest moment, I wasn't very empathetic. But really there is nothing " wrong" with my daughter. Her clinical diagnosis isn't important to strangers. Zoe is smart, socially aware, and she has feelings too. I want my children to understand the simplest of concepts -- sometimes people look different. We are all different. We shouldn't stare, we shouldn't ask -- we should just accept and try to understand. Sometimes people's muscles don't work right and they use canes, walkers, scooters and wheelchairs to help them. Sometimes you can't see their disability.

We are all vulnerable, we are all exposed. We all can be hurt. As parents we need to do better, encouraging empathy and teaching our children to think of the thoughts of others.

I could have led by example that day. After, I was embarrassed by my anger, my defensiveness, as the reality of life crashed into my pleasant afternoon. Zoe didn't hear my reply, because I moved away from her, she didn't even observe it, but I still feel it. I am sure my face burned red, and my words were not an example of calm, they were rushed, angry and emotional -- and they left an imprint on my heart.

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