This has been a spirit-crushing week. Foremost in my mind, is the bloodbath in Paris. My heart goes out to the families and friends of the dead and wounded, and to all Parisians.
My heart has also been heavy as I’ve followed the racial conflict at the University of Missouri and my alma mater, Yale. The anger and alienation around the world is palpable, even as I sit writing in a small quiet town in Montana.
But feeling bad or even feeling solidarity is not enough. How can we respond in a way that makes a difference?
Start with the children: Teach empathy
We can start with our children. We can start by teaching empathy.
On a rain-drenched day last fall, a wheelchair-bound student struggled mightily to open the door to his high school. He eventually did get in. But it took a while. He was soaked. And he was beside himself with frustration. Right then and there he decided he wasn’t going through this experience anymore. The school told him, if he could raise the money for an automatic door, they would install it.
He did raise the money. And then some. All very admirable. But in reading about this, my attention was drawn to the way he went about it. The rules: For every $20 raised, one of his fellow students had to spend a day in a wheelchair. So now his classmates got a glimpse of life through his eyes. They experienced the feelings of life from a wheelchair. Now, they could feel why the automatic door was so important. He was looking to raise $40,000. He ended up raising $87,000. Empathy – being able to share another person’s feelings – is a powerful thing. It can change lives, even whole societies. The question is how do you raise empathetic kids without the wheelchair?
There’s an article out of Harvard that sums it up quite well, I think. Five keys (annotated here with some stories from my own life).
Be an Empathy Role Model
Living in a big city, my daily routines often take me past people on the street asking for money. It is easy to see these people as “other” (if we see them at all). They don’t look like us. They don’t have the same kind of daily activities that we do. It is hard for any of us – parents or children – to put ourselves in their shoes.
When my girls were little, I used to give them quarters to pass along to the homeless, explaining that these people were hungry. My children knew what their own stomachs felt like when they were hungry for dinner. This gave them empathy. Now I know this is a hot topic – some people believe in giving to beggars; others are vehemently against it. Whatever your philosophy, you can model empathy simply by not ignoring the situation and talking about ways you believe in to help the hungry.
Set High Expectations around Caring for Others
Having friends over after school was always great fun for my girls. But sometimes that first visit with a new friend needed an icebreaker. I have found that 99% of the time, food is a great way to get things going. So we would start with snacks. And always let the new guest choose – which sometimes meant making chocolate chip cookies when my daughter would have preferred peanut butter ones.
Here’s an example of how it played out: A little pout from my daughter, the hostess. We talk about that. How do you feel when you are the new kid? Doesn’t getting to choose the snack make you feel a lot better? She sighs. Nods. She knows the feeling. OK. Chocolate chip it is.
Draw a Big Circle of People to Care For
Care for others. This includes: Care for your family. Care for your friends. Care for your schoolmates – even those who don’t act like you or do the same things you do. Care for the ones who talk different. Or look different.
As your kid gets bigger, the circle gets bigger. Bigger kids can care for people they don’t know. Middle-schoolers can volunteer at a soup kitchen or a home for the elderly. High-schoolers can participate in a foreign exchange program or sign up for an internship summer in a part of the US that is new to them – city folks with rural communities; small town folks with inner-city families. Care for others.
Work Through Negative Feelings Toward Others
There are always going to be people your child just doesn’t want to be around. There was a girl in my third grade class who I thought was recklessly wild. She thought I was Miss Goody Two Shoes. So she picked at me, trying to get a rise. It worked. I was angry and upset.
My teacher was on to us. One lunchtime she sat us down and we talked about how we felt. We still didn’t like each other. But once we had aired our feelings, we had an understanding. The teasing stopped. And that was enough.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is not easy. Not for kids. Not for grownups. But like a lot of other things, we can keep getting better at it if we practice. Sometimes, there will be a wheelchair to help us empathize. Sometimes we have to look a little deeper to find common ground. The more we practice, the easier it gets.
Share your stories of teaching children empathy.