After the Sandy Hook shooting last month, I sat down with my oldest son (he turned 7 on Christmas Eve) to talk to him about the shooting because I didn’t want him to hear about it first from other kids at school. I was still reeling from the news, from the heart-breaking reflection that all those children were the same age as this beloved child in front of me. I couldn’t stop thinking about those parents whose grief I couldn’t fully know, but could imagine with painful clarity.
I realized, as our discussion ended, that I might have frightened my son, so I added, “This kind of thing is really unlikely to happen here,” and reminded him (and me!) of statistics that suggest that school is still a safe place for children.
My son’s response shocked me a little. “That’s okay, mom. If someone comes to my school I’ll just run away really fast, so maybe he’ll get the other kids but not me.”
I felt like he’d missed something critical in our discussion, but I wasn’t sure what, so beyond a reminder that we don’t want anyone to get shot, I let him go. In the weeks since, I’ve realized that his response bothers me because it betrays a lack of empathy.
I’m not blaming my son for that–he’s still a child, and his perspective is still very much a self-oriented one. (According to one online dictionary, empathy is “identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.”) But it’s got me thinking about my own culpability as a parent. There are lots of things I hope I can teach my children: grit, determination, honesty, compassion, hard work. Empathy is at the top of that list.
Empathy is at the heart of some of our key religious beliefs. In Mosiah 18:9, part of our baptismal covenant includes the injunction to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort,” both actions that require at least some degree of empathy. Learning empathy and charity go hand in hand–we find our way into charity out of empathy, and the practice of charity can sometimes help us learn empathy.
We also believe in an empathic God–a God who weeps for us and with us (see Moses 7:28).
But empathy is a tricky thing to learn and just as tricky to teach. Like many virtues, I think parents teach it best by practice–but empathy isn’t an easy thing for me to show my children (or even, sometimes, to practice). I can tell them how I feel–but, as a fledgling writer I’ve been learning that telling someone an emotion does not equate to them feeling the same thing.
Girls Carrying Water in India, photo by Tom Maisey, Wikimedia Commons
Roman Krznaric offers six habits of empathic people that we can develop, including cultivating curiosity about others, learning to listen, and trying someone else’s lifestyle. He argues that not only does empathy expand our moral compass, but it actually helps us live happier lives. I imagine it would be possible to extend these habits to our children, encouraging them to learn about other people and perspectives and helping them imagine the inner lives of others.
Outside of painful personal experiences, my most direct encounters with empathy have come from reading widely, from following another author into the mind of someone unlike myself. Recently, I read R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, a story of a boy with severe cranio-facial deformities and the way his life and the lives of those around him are transformed by kindness–and empathy. I hope that books like this will help me teach my son empathy as he gets a little older.
Really, though, I wanted to turn to the collective wisdom of the Segullah mind: what experiences have helped you teach your children empathy? What books do you encourage your children to read to expand their ability to imagine the lives of people different from them?