Cultivating empathy is a hot topic in the parenting world. Current research has demonstrated that children under a year not only have the capacity for empathy but actually exhibit empathy. (Regarding infants: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201306/empathy-appears-in-infancy-varies-age-and-gender Regarding toddlers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lX6krHsZA_w .)
But parents, usually not educated to recognize and encourage this trait in their very young children, are often stumped by cultivating empathy. As the child grows, his parents wonder when the empathy will kick in. Sometimes, empathy in its most raw and deeply meaningful expression, is right under their noses.
A client recently shared a story with me that colorfully and emotionally demonstrated this reality.
Rex was 9 years old, when a boy in his sister’s class, a year below, was dealing with his cancer and undergoing chemotherapy. Everyone in the school was aware of his illness and rallied to give support in all the traditional ways—meals and all manner of help. One of the most dreaded effects of that treatment is the inevitable hair loss, and so it was with the young patient. In an act of support and solidarity, some boys decided to shave their heads. And with an enthusiastic contagion, it caught on in many grades, including Rex’s. Boys came to school with buzz cuts and ear to ear grins, encircling and buoying their schoolmate. Rex told his mom how great that felt, how he loved the feeling of supporting the boy who had no hair. That was Rex’s awakening to the expression of true empathy and how good it feels to be the giver.
Years before this event at school, Rex’s mom’s aging uncle was placed in a home. He was no longer able to care for himself, and he had no other family to attend to him. One of the few things that brought joy to Uncle Gil was seeing his great-nephew Rex and his sister Gracie. So for years Mom insisted that the children visit their grand uncle at the home every week.
While I don’t know what you conjure up when you think of old peoples’ homes, for most of us the vision includes hallways lined with old people in wheel chairs or using walkers, interesting smells, unusual noises, and things neither familiar nor necessarily pleasant to a child. Rex and Gracie made a stink about having to go; they were crabby and cranky. Mom was undeterred. It was not a choice, she said. And week after week, the kids’ presence brought a ray of sunshine into their aging uncle’s life.
And then a funny thing happened. Not so long after the head- shaving- act-of-solidarity, Mom told the kids that they actually had a choice about their visits to see Uncle Gil. They could be cranky, or they could put on a smile, get over themselves, and actually make someone else happy. Maybe Rex recalled the good feeling he had gotten from his buzz cut experience, or maybe Mom just hit a chord. One day Rex struck up a conversation with a rest home resident named Mort. Mort was in his 90’s and an avid baseball fan. While Rex was close to four generations younger, he too was a baseball fanatic. It started with an exchange of baseball trash talk. (“Yeah, those Dodgers are hopeless!”) Their common love of baseball grew, and so did their relationship. Rex began anticipating with excitement his visits to see his uncle…and Mort. A twelve year old boy and a 90 something year old man talking trash about baseball. Rex was loving it.
At the same time, Gracie, a typical, 10 year old girl who notices what people wear and how they present, shared her observations of the home lunch room. There was Bubbles, a resident in her late eighties. Gracie loved her name and reached out to her as she sat with her husband. A tentative conversation led to an ongoing friendship, Gracie and Bubbles. She was also fascinated with the ladies at “the Cute Table.” Those fancy ladies, she noted, were “cute,” all decked out for lunch—dressy outfits, hair perfectly done, and fully made up faces. And she reached out to them, many were in their nineties. Lo and behold, Gracie made new lady friends. Each week Gracie joins Bubbles and the ladies at the Cute Table for a lunch time visit. They share conversations about fashion, commenting on what one another is wearing, and about life.
Gracie’s and Rex’s friends all know about Mort and Bubbles and the cute ladies. With a sense of connection seasoned with a bit of familial ownership, they share the latest news and stories from the home. And they eagerly anticipate the next week’s visit with never a groan.
Sometimes unintended consequences grow out of life’s have-to’s. I am sure that neither Rex nor Gracie, nor even their mom knew the great rewards that would result from their visit to the rest home. A have-to became a get-to. Empathy became a two way street.