Once a month I will post a previously published editorial from my years as publisher and editor of Island Parent Magazine (1988 – 2003). I continued to write for the magazine occasionally after we sold the publication to our partners.
Lessons of Empathy November 2005 Island Parent Magazine
Parents sometimes ask me, “How can I teach my child empathy?” I understand by that question that they want for their children to be kind and compassionate human beings.
My response is one I’ve thought long and hard about. “I think we ‘teach’ by how we live our own life… by how we have empathy for our children and others.” It seems to me that empathy is not so much about doing, but about how we are in the world.
I have to say that I am regularly blown away by the empathy my sons show for others. I don’t claim to be responsible for how they are in the world. I just hope that I’ve stepped out of the way enough to let their true nature shine through. And I see evidence of that. I just wished I’d trusted that innate part of them more.
When one son was eleven we were downtown walking arm in arm, as we did at that time. A young man approached us, tugged on my son’s sleeve and said, “Hey, good for you. Got yourself an older woman, eh?” and gave him what I judged to be a lewd look. I yanked my son away and we marched down the street with me fuming in my head, “If that creep has even tainted my relationship with my son, I could kill him!” (This when I had just been introduced to Nonviolent Communication!) If steam could come out of my ears, it would have. I turned to my son, wanting to connect with him during this time of trauma, and said, “What a jerk!” (the extent of my compassion!) My son turned to me and said, “Oh Mama, I feel sorry for that guy, he probably didn’t have a very good relationship with his mother.” Out of the mouths of babes! I stared at him… where did he come from? Was this ‘my son’?
More recently, we were celebrating my older son’s birthday at a local restaurant. While the waitress was attentive, I was increasingly irritated by her over enthusiasm, her “tittering,” her obvious appreciation of the 2 young men at our table. At one point I muttered under my breath, “Enough already, you blonde bimbo.” (please note that I am a natural blonde and have the right to make such comments!) Both boys jumped on me. How could I be so rude? Wasn’t the waitress doing her job? And doing it well? What was my problem?! While I was embarrassed and regretted my words, I was, at the same time, very proud of my sons. And pleased they felt comfortable to call me on my poor behaviour.
Even more recently, early one morning I was driving my son somewhere. I went to change lanes and almost drove into the car in the lane beside me. The driver honked and swerved. A near miss. I put my hand over my heart and turned so he could see me say, “I’m so so sorry!” After a moment spent collecting myself, I said to my son, “I bet that guy won’t need caffeine today. Poor guy, I really scared him.” My son answered thoughtfully, “You know, I see now that there aren’t really ‘bad drivers,’ just people who make mistakes. After all, you’re a good driver. I’ve never seen you do that before.” I almost drove into another car while my jaw dropped and I stared at him.
And with greater regularity than I like to admit, my one son inevitably is ready with the response, “Don’t worry about it, Mama. I know you’re just having a hard time,” when I snap at him and then regret my words.
Where does this wisdom and compassion come from!? Not that I’m surprised. I find both our sons warm and thoughtful people. With their parents especially.
When our kids feel connected to someone, they exhibit compassion readily. When they don’t feel connected, or are dealing with someone for whom they have little respect, that compassion is harder to find. That’s true for all of us.
Taking this to the macro level, I can easily see how many young people who don’t feel the concern or interest of adults have a hard time concerning themselves with others’ feelings, others’ concerns.
Which leads me back to where I started… which is to reiterate that by doing our own work, by working on our closest relationships so that they reflect respect, concern and acceptance, we are giving our children the most precious gift…. a lived experience of empathy. Talking about empathy and ‘teaching it’ pale in comparison.
So while we may not want to work on our relationship with our ex, our parents, our in-law, sibling, boss, it behooves us to think twice about writing another person off, especially verbally in front of our kids. Let’s consider how our actions and language inform the experience of our children. So if not for us, it can be for them that we take risks, open up, work at forgiveness and move always in the direction of compassion and love. For what greater gift can we give than the workings of our own hearts, our own lives, the nitty-gritty of our daily struggles… it’s what our kids pick up, whether we like it or not.
I’ve found that not only are my sons some of my best teachers, they also are my best motivators. Not that they know it. But it’s so true.
And for all they offer me, and take from me, I am truly grateful.