Around the time of Freddie Gray’s tragic death, I noticed something insidious about our culture. It’s not new, but it’s something of which I’ve become increasingly aware. A mama lost her boy that day in a completely avoidable death, at the hands of those whose job it is to protect and serve. Yet many people were so focused on the riots that followed in the aftermath, they seemed far less concerned with the gruesome homicide. The lack of compassion stunned me.
I understood the anger and outrage the community in Baltimore showed, and I understand that they had to scream to be heard. It shouldn’t be that way, and empathy should have been our immediate reaction as a nation. Since that time, I’ve been mulling over the idea that empathy is a skill we devalue as a culture.
I’ve observed a similar pattern countless times since this spring during school shootings and instances of police brutality. People who have never suffered a specific tragedy seem to have no concept of the life altering trauma it caused those involved; Facebook users post articles or opinions rather than trying to listen and learn. We’re all guilty of this to some extent, and it’s a cultural problem. I felt a deep urge to promote change on a grand scale. I felt passionate about moving the U.S. from being a country of entitlement to one of understanding and kindness. But what was to be done?
As a psychotherapist, I see how pervasive devastation and trauma are in our country. I just couldn’t wrap my head around a way to foster large scale change to transform all of that suffering. Where would I even start? Then I had an interaction with my son, and the path became clear.
One evening, I needed to make dinner and my three year old wanted me to play with him. He became very upset with me because he wanted my full attention, and at that moment I wasn’t able to give it to him. Any parent of small children knows that the late afternoon when dinner needs to be prepared is when parental energy is often waning as toddler needs rapidly escalate. It’s only slightly less stressful than the pressure of putting together a puzzle while attempting to tread water in a tsunami. None of us are at our finest.
I’d spent the afternoon playing with my son, and I had given him plenty of notice that I would need to start on dinner. Even so, he became frustrated and upset when the transition came, hitting me and calling me a “bad mama.” While my feelings weren’t really hurt, I did feel exasperated and impatient with what I perceived to be unnecessary drama. I just wanted to get dinner made without a production. I removed him from the kitchen so he could compose himself enough to be safe; I had no interest in any further conversation. Needless to say, this was not my finest parenting moment. Luckily, my three year old showed an admirable level of maturity which continues to astound me.
Rather than crying in the hallway or continuing to hit me, he calmly said, “I think you’re a bad mama, you think you’re not a bad mama, let’s talk about this.”
He pulled a stool up to the kitchen counter and looked at me expectantly. I attempted to explain that sometimes I need to divide my time, and that I can’t always play with him. I tried to help him see my perspective, and in his three-year-old way, he did the same. Eventually he assured me that I’m not a bad mama and suggested we find an art project he could engage in so he could be in the kitchen with me while I cooked. My three year old was able to understand my point of view, and once he did he was able to shift his focus from demanding his wants to allowing for compromise.
Through his curiosity he was able to empathize with my situation.
In doing so, he preserved the relationship and presented a win/win solution to a problem.
I can’t take full credit for my son’s insight, and I certainly can’t claim that our interactions always play out this way. However, I can say that my husband and I are working to raise our son to be skilled at empathy. We’re intentionally instilling a strength in him that we know must be taught, and we hope to build on that life skill as he grows in order to raise a compassionate, socially active young person. We’re preparing him to give a shit. This matters for a lot of reasons, an obvious one being that everyone wants to feel heard and understood. Everyone wants to feel like their perspective is valid, even if it’s not entirely understood. Empathy is a valuable skill to have in relationships throughout life, both professional and personal.
It’s possible that teaching empathy to children in a way as deliberate as teaching math could reduce the alarming number of young people who plot mass shootings in their schools. If children learned how to show each other empathy, fewer kids would feel bullied, marginalized, and ostracized. And if young people were given tools to develop compassion for themselves and others, those with a tendency towards violence might be less likely to murder in spite of their inner struggles.
The ability to be curious about someone else’s experience, to truly attempt to share the feelings of another, removes the fear of the unknown. It naturally builds communities and reduces isolation. It’s important as parents to remember that even if children appear to be highly empathic, this quality can atrophy like any other if not exercised, practiced, and nurtured. Children will never reach their full potential if they are not taught in developmentally appropriate ways. And like math, the concepts of empathy must be built upon year after year to promote mastery.
Regardless of your child’s age, now is a good time to start focusing on empathy. There are many ways to teach our children empathy, but as parents we know that children learn the most powerful lessons by observation. Model empathy for them, and they will begin to understand its merits.
If you have a small child with a big fear, empathize and recognize the fear, however irrational it may seem, as valid. This seems like an obvious concept, and we probably all intend to do this throughout our days. However, when I actually pay mindful attention to how I’m responding to my son, I realize that I often dismiss his fears in an effort to expedite bedtime or get out the door in a timely fashion. Yet this strategy is rarely successful since children will continue to draw attention to an issue until they are actually heard. Rather than saying, “monsters aren’t real” I try saying, “I understand that monsters can be scary even though they’re pretend. What can we do when you begin to feel scared?” I try to adopt a position of curiosity to help him explore his feelings and discover his own solutions. Children and adolescents often experience big emotions, and our ability to respond to them with empathy and genuine interest determines how well they can give the same consideration to their peers, employees, and partners of the future.
Progress is slow, and I know we can’t change an entire society over night. However, I’m suggesting that we begin at the birth of each child to promote a cultural shift that is both realistic and sustainable. Empathy could be the key to that change.
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