Teaching your kids empathy is all about show, not tell
Her name was Honey and she came to live with my family for a few weeks in 1979. I was enchanted by her exotic name, the swing of silken hair down her back. She was the big sister I’d always wanted.
My brothers and I had plenty of add-on siblings over the years. Joanne, who stayed for several months; the three-week-old baby whose mother attempted suicide. Mum never explained why or how they came. Instead, she set to baking double batches of biscuits and reloading the washing machine. Taking in foster kids was our normal.
Years later, my mum still works as a special needs teacher. It’s seen her bitten, punched and a victim of theft. But she’s also been held, hugged and relied upon by families whose challenging days bleed into exhausting nights. Parents and former students stop her in the street, all bearing the legacy of her kindness.
She’ll hate me making her out to be a Mother Teresa. “Stop it,” she’ll shush when I elevate her to a pedestal she’s never sought. But it’s thanks to her that I can forage deep within me for a compassion I don’t often show, much less act upon.
The glimpse of a wheelchair always takes me back to Hayley, a girl whose curled limbs and skin like waxed cheese were the crippling symptoms of a genetic disease that would claim her and two of her sisters. I doubt Mum even thought about it when she took me with her to visit Hayley. Back then you didn’t teach empathy; your kids learned by how you lived.
How different, then, my life with its token acts of kindness: a donation for flood victims, a photo of a sponsored child stuck to the fridge as evidence (to whom? Our friends? Ourselves?) of our charitableness.
Sometimes, in the dash between dancing, swimming and soccer practice, I’ll dump a bag of clothes with The Smith Family and tell the kids about what it does. But I suspect it means little – even less than the nonsensical link between them eating their dinner and the “starving children in Africa”.
So where do children learn compassion if not at home? And how can we teach it when we’re barely keeping upright on the hamster wheel of our “me, me, me” careers and lifestyles?
What am I showing my kids when I groan about the effort of having house guests? How can I preach giving when I’m “too busy” to manage their T-ball team?
And how will they know that tenderness, humility and integrity are valued when we increasingly measure them on their minds? Every two years, they sit NAPLAN tests from which they receive a series of black dots that, apparently, tell them who they are.
But how do you tabulate the natural or learned decency that will one day transform and invigorate a desiccated society? Where on the high school forms I recently filled out was the space to write that my daughter is a loyal friend?
They may learn it from books – as Atticus says in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Or maybe from pop culture – Lady Gaga: “It’s important to be giving, to return the love back.”
But still I despair. So I turn to the person who will see it for what it is. “Oh darling,” my mum says. “Look what happened after the Queensland floods and the Christchurch earthquake. People still have good hearts. They’re just more stressed, so they don’t quite have the opportunity to show it.”
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