Dr. Takao Takahashi, Keio University School of Medicine’s Pediatrics Professor, wrote his book What I Want To Tell You as a Pediatrician: The Best Parenting to answer the many questions he receives from parents. In this book, he introduces the “3 strengths necessary to life”: “empathy,” “decision making,” and “self-affirmation.”
In this article, we sit down with Dr. Takahashi to discuss these three strengths.
Empathy for others is the driving force behind a life of happiness.
Editor I (hereinafter labeled I): You have said the “3 strengths necessary to life” are “empathy,” “decision making,” and “self-affirmation.” Today, we would like to hear more about this topic.
First let’s discuss empathy. What is empathy, and how can parents help develop this?
Dr. Takahashi: I think empathy is the easiest of the three to understand. To put it simply, it is the ability to place yourself in another person’s emotions, such as happiness or sadness. We see this demonstrated even in everyday small talk. It begins with “I like your clothes” and is responded with a “thank you.” Even such a small thing establishes beautiful, empathy-filled communication.
Others may demonstrate their empathy during sports games, saying things like “wow, home run!” or “nice shoot!” to express their happiness for someone else’s success. Whether victory or loss, sports inspire courage through shared emotions.
I: I can definitely relate to feeling that way over sports! But why is empathy necessary for life?
Dr. Takahashi: Because it enriches life. The amount of happiness a single human can obtain for themselves is tiny. But those who can experience others’ happiness through empathy can obtain more happiness. If a child could empathize and feel the joy, success, and happiness of others as though it is their own, wouldn’t that child have the most blissful life?
I: That may be true. Then, what can parents do to encourage empathy in their children?
Dr. Takahashi: When a child says they’re hungry, instead of just saying “be patient” or “wait,” try “you must be hungry.” If they say they’re hurt, don’t respond with “no it doesn’t, don’t cry!” but rather “you must be hurt.” Children will realize that having their thoughts validated feels good. Then, perhaps they will see their friend crying and be able to say “you’re sad, are you ok?” Being met with empathy while complaining is especially impactful.
I: The same happens with adults. When we are complaining and are immediately denied, it is hurtful. We want to get all our thoughts out and be accepted first, and when this happens we build positive relationships with others.
Dr. Takahashi: Exactly. No matter how correct they may be, strong opinions do not help the complaining person. Validating their thoughts is the best solution. For example, if you said “I’m so busy” and they responded with “then do your work like this, and use your time efficiently so you can rest on the weekends,” it actually doesn’t help at all.
I: Right, exactly.
Dr. Takahashi: That being said, it’s not enough to just say “yeah that’s tough.” Children are the same. I think if parents really tried to understand what their children may be thinking, how that might make them feel, and then let them know that you’re there for them, those children will naturally develop empathy.
What you need to live powerfully
I: Next we would love to hear about decision making. Could you describe specifically what this strength is?
Dr. Takahashi: From small choices like where to go or what to eat in a day, to big choices like what school to attend or what club to join, life is a series of choices. To be able to decide for yourself what you want, and to express so confidently is strong decision making.
I: So is it having a clear will of your own?
Dr. Takahashi: Yes. It is the strength of choosing for yourself. When children make their own decisions and execute them, they will learn from the experience even if it’s a mistake. If they succeed, they will feel a huge sense of accomplishment, which will increase their self-confidence when they make their next choice. Rather than the parent commanding every move, if children are able to make their own decisions, it can greatly affect their life later on.
I: So if children think and make these decisions from a young age, they will develop this decision-making strength.
Dr. Takahashi: Exactly. It’s important for children to know that they possess the skills and the right to choose for themselves. Believing that “even if I say what I want, no one will listen, it’s useless,” is an unhappy way to grow up.
I: This may be something I am personally guilty of. Sometimes I think I am doing good for my child, and it’s hard to stop myself from intervening...
Dr. Takahashi: A parent should first allow their child to express their opinions. And, if as a result they fail, it’s important to not blame them. Creating an environment where a child can safely feel “this is what I chose, so it’s okay” is a parent’s duty. When one experiences this feeling during childhood, they are able to have confidence in their decisions in adulthood.
I: Is the feeling “this is what I chose, so it’s okay” connected to developing self-responsibility?
Dr. Takahashi: Hmm, it’s not quite that… I think it’s more, I chose this myself, but if it fails it is nobody’s fault. Mistakes are just mistakes. It’s good to reflect on mistakes to succeed in the future, but I don’t think you need to feel guilt or self-responsibility. That’s why parents should affirm their children, saying “yes that didn’t go well, but it’s good that you made your own decision.” The more experience a child has in making their own decisions without being afraid to do so, the more their decision-making abilities will grow.
To raise a child with strong self-affirmation, the parent must have strong self-affirmation.
I: Finally, please tell us about self-affirmation.
Dr. Takahashi: I think self-affirmation is knowing “I am good enough today as I am.” But unlike empathy and decision making, it is not easily expressed in words or actions and is therefore difficult to recognize from the outside. It’s difficult to recognize in yourself too. For example, a person may be rich and well-respected and look happy, but it doesn’t guarantee that they have a high sense of self-affirmation. That being said, I believe all people are born with this strength. As with all living creatures, humans at the very least feel glad to be alive the moment we are born. At the start of life, we are full of self-affirmation, and perhaps this is intrinsically guaranteed to us.
I: I see. So is self-affirmation given to us naturally?
Dr. Takahashi: Yes, I believe self-affirmation is a natural strength given to every child by genetics. There aren’t children who don’t have this trait from the start. For example, babies are always smiling. I think this is because they are overflowing with self-affirmation.
I: So everyone is born with this strength. Then, your environment can either heighten or weaken it?
Dr. Takahashi: I believe so. What’s clear is that children who endure abuse from their parents in the form of violence or neglect gradually lose their self-affirmation. If you grow up hearing “I wish you were never born,” of course your self-affirmation will weaken.
I: Of course there’s no way you can stay positive if you’re told that…
Generally, it’s said that child abuse stems from a “negative pattern,” so does the low self-affirmation of a parent affect the child?
Dr. Takahashi: Absolutely. To deny the existence of your child is to deny your own existence. That’s why I think if you want to raise your child’s self-affirmation, you must first raise your own self-affirmation as a parent.
I: The self-affirmation as a parent?
Dr. Takahashi: If you are a mother raising a child, when you think “I’m so glad I have this child,” your self-affirmation is high. If a mother genuinely feels “I’m so happy I received this child. This was the right decision,” their child will be able to tell. A mother’s strong self-affirmation will directly protect and raise the self-affirmation of the child.
I: So a mother should stay positive. This seems like a tall order for mothers who already have so much to think about. Even when I think of my own childhood, I feel like my mother was always sighing about something.
Dr. Takahashi: Realistically, there isn’t a person who is always happy. But, there are parents who are constantly sighing “it wasn’t supposed to be like this” or “I was supposed to be happier.” If you grow up hearing these proclamations of low self-affirmation, this pattern can become part of you. Almost like a generational chain of low self-affirmation. Though there are extremes, it’s generally better to have high self-affirmation. Maybe start with simply taking a deep breath and spending time with your child.
I: There’s no need to lie to yourself, but living as positively as possible, being relaxed and raising your child happily seems beneficial to both you and your child.
Dr. Takahashi: I think so. Another thing: to raise their self-affirmation, it’s essential to have children experience many small successes, and compliment them “good job!” each time. Being able to think “I can do it” and “I love myself” are great assets to the child’s development. These will connect to their empathy and decision making as well.
For the child’s happiness, I want parents to be conscious about these three strengths: “empathy”, the ability to understand the feelings of others, “decision making,” the ability to choose for themselves, and “self-affirmation,” the ability to love themselves as they are.
I: All three can be put into practice by any parent. I definitely want to bring this to my own family starting today. Thank you so much!
Dr. Takao Takahashi
Keio University School of Medicine, Head Professor of Pediatrics, Medical Doctor specializing in General Pediatrics and Pediatric Neurology
After graduating from Keio University School of Medicine in 1982, Dr. Takahashi served in the Department of Pediatric Neurology at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital and as a neurology lecturer at Harvard Medical School. He returned to Japan in 1994, and has been active as both doctor and professor at Keio University Pediatrics since. His hobby is running, and his best marathon time is 3 hours 7 minutes at the 2016 Tokyo Marathon, earning the nickname of “fastest pediatric professor in Japan.”