On empathy

Most days, my husband and I carpool to work and back. The morning drives are generally quiet with Matt “resting his eyes” in the passenger seat and me listening to political talk radio or classical music. I’m so damned cultured, aren’t I? It honestly depends on the mood I’m in: sometimes I need to get in touch with my political side and others I need to calm down after a stressful morning. The after-work drives are more animated and the two of us have great conversations: some funny, some serious.

Since Jaden has started Kindergarten, the serious conversations have come up more frequently. The deep parental “how do we do this?” types of questions. We’ve come against a few things that don’t make us thrilled about the public school system and already have to figure out which things we let go and which things we should take a stand on. One big question that jumps into our head is this: We can do all we can to teach our children how we feel people should act and hope they take these lessons to heart but what about all of the other kids? They are all receiving different messages at home. That is what makes our country wonderful; we are all free to teach our children what we feel is right. But what happens when our children are confronted with another child’s drastically different views? Do we start telling Jaden now about all of the things some people believe in that we don’t agree with and how to deal with that situation or do we wait to address them as they come up?

*****

When I was eight years old, my mom found me in my bedroom crying my little heart out. She asked me what was bothering me so much and I responded by asking her why someone would take a little boy away from his family. I was talking about Jacob Wetterling. It was my first encounter with something horrible happening outside of my little view of the world. The world is a bad place? I couldn’t wrap my head around it. It didn’t make sense that anyone would do something like that. My mom, completely unprepared for this, explained that unfortunately there are some very bad people in the world and it was her job to teach me how to protect myself and watch out for them. Not wanting to scare me, she told me that most people are good. She wiped my cheek and said, “You are a perfect example. You don’t even know this boy and you are scared for him. Most people are, too.”

A few days or weeks later, in music class, I was called on to pick a song for the class to sing. I can’t remember the song title, but I know it was written in Jacob Wetterling’s memory. It was all I could do.

He would be 32 right now. Maybe he is. We can hope, even though it’s so hard, we can hope.

*****

In the fifth grade we were given a report assignment with our choice of subject. Everyone in the class was picking an animal. Why not? Animals are fun! What 10/11 year old doesn’t want to learn about animals? As the teacher went around the room and wrote down everyone’s report subjects, I stood out a bit: I chose AIDS as my report topic. This was 1991 and AIDS still had a lot of myths flying around about it. I had heard about it briefly in Sex Education and it came up every now and then in the news, but I wanted to know more about it.

Five other kids changed their report topics to other social issues: drugs, violence, etc.

*****

In high school, I worked for the school paper for a semester and wrote an editorial about how our generation had gotten lazy and had no social conscience. Thinking back on it, it seems horribly self-righteous, but my heart was in the right place. Don’t know what the results of that were, or if anyone read it, but there it is.

*****

Today, I heard about the man at Rutger’s who committed suicide due to what can only be considered cyber hate crime. I can’t stop thinking about this poor soul and the many others like him who are threatened and bullied for something that is hurting no one. I’m listening to the radio and while my heart is in pain listening to other people share their own stories of hate, I can actually feel my chest hurting, I remain hopeful that the majority of us are good people and that we are fighting to protect those against these crimes. We are fighting by spreading the word of tolerance, teaching our children that this is NOT how we treat others, teaching them that we do NOT stand idly by and watch others get treated this way, we do NOT tolerate this behavior in children or adults. We MUST respect each other as a matter of survival and basic common decency.

*****

In pre-school, Jaden used to get stomach aches on the mornings she had to go. I finally got to the bottom of the stomach aches: she was seeing another student picking on his sisters and it was literally making her sick to witness. I told her that it’s never nice to see other people fighting. I assured her that even though brothers and sisters fight, they do love each other. I also told her that if she ever feels uncomfortable with the way other kids are acting, to tell a teacher. Just because that student was picking on his sisters and not kids he’s not related to, doesn’t make it right. I also told her that I would discuss this with her teacher, and I did. The teacher acknowledged that this was an issue in the class and they did remove the student at times because Jaden wasn’t the only one who was upset by it. I felt proud for two reasons:  1) My daughter has such deep empathy for others that seeing violence makes her physically ill and 2) she’s not alone.

*****

I informed Jaden’s kindergarten about her empathy and asked her to watch out for Jaden withdrawing herself from the class because that could be a sign that she’s seeing something that’s not right. It took me way too long to figure out where Jaden gets this deep empathy from. It dawned on me this morning as I listened to the stories of hatred and support and started feeling heart sick, again:

Me.

This is kind of nice because it means that my husband and I have already done something right without even trying: just being us. We know that our kids have the all important empathy gene and now we must build on it. Reiterate what to do when they see other people getting harassed: step in if they feel comfortable, tell a teacher, tell their parents. Don’t just stand there and do nothing. Reiterate that just because you don’t agree with someone, doesn’t mean you can be mean to them. Thoughtful discussion can occur between two opposing sides (an idea that seems to be lost in this age of reactionary sentiment) and if you can’t come to a middle ground, agree to disagree and drop it. I may bristle when I see deer skull stickers on giant pickup trucks, but I’m not going to slash that truck’s tires.

*****

So, I guess the answer to the question posed in the opening paragraph of this post is: a little of both. Live by example and explain our actions when we deem it appropriate to. Answer any questions our kids have but don’t scare them into thinking everyone is out to get them and that most people are good people.

It’s worked for us so far.

*****

Empathy is the capacity to, through consciousness rather than physically, share the sadness or happiness of another sentient being.

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