“Empathy is the starting point for creating a community and taking action. It’s the impetus for creating change.” Max Carver
As more people come forward with their #metoo and #churchtoo stories, their courage and bravery is being put to the test by people who are questioning and victim-blaming and choosing to stand alongside perpetrators instead of those who survived horrific abuse.
Show me a comment or a statement that fits one of the above categories and I’ll show you someone who lacks empathy. Their inability or downright refusal to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and have compassion for the survivor’s experience allows them the convenience of ignoring what these bold and heroic truth-tellers have lived through.
At the heart of this lack of empathy is fear and – dare I say it – cowardice. I believe these words from Dr. Maya Angelou to the depth of my soul: I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.
I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.
As parents, it is our job to raise children who are able and willing to live empathetic, open-hearted lives. These skills do not come naturally, particularly in our self-obsessed culture. But there is hope for all of us. There are things we can do as parents and as adults who love the children in our lives to instill a deep sense of compassion and understanding in the hearts of the little ones around us. If you want your child or niece or nephew or godson or goddaughter or student to be one who stands up for the marginalized and victimized and ostracized and “others” in our society, read on. Let’s prepare ourselves to do this important work together.
What is empathy?
Richard Weissbourd and Stephanie Jones of the Making Caring Common Project say it best:
Empathy begins with the capacity to take another perspective, to walk in another’s shoes. But it is not just that capacity… Empathy includes valuing other perspectives and people. It’s about perspective-taking and compassion.
At the heart of empathy is a life-changing marrying of others-centered perspective and compassion. Without these two essential ingredients, a person’s heart is void of the ability to empathize.
Imagine that your best friend collapses onto your couch in heaving sobs, telling you that her husband has just filed for divorce. She’s blindsided and grief-stricken. What’s your initial response? If it’s to pat her on the shoulder and say, “This must be really hard for you,” then you need some practice in the empathy department.
Empathy is entering the pain of another person instead of hovering around on the outside talking about how bad it all must feel.
Empathy looks like you drawing your friend into your chest and bawling your head off with her and listening to her pain and directing your energy at feeling what she’s feeling as best you can. It looks like you sitting with her until she is ready to move and not a minute earlier. Empathy is entering the pain of another person instead of hovering around on the outside talking about how bad it all must feel.
Empathy is not easy and it is not always convenient, but it is brave and loving and completely necessary in the life of a human being.
Why is empathy necessary?
Because it the foundational skill of ethical, honest and true relationships. You cannot show up for the people around you if you do not have empathy muscles. This important skill enables us to truly connect with the people in our lives.
I believe one reason why abuse is so widely accepted and unpunished in our society is because people who have never been abused are afraid of empathizing with someone who has lived through such a traumatic experience. It requires them to get uncomfortable, to admit that this world is a really messed up place sometimes. Empathy requires a person to relinquish their preconceived notions about abuse victims (they asked for it, they deserved it, if only they hadn’t x-y-z) and instead consider that these survivors actually did nothing wrong and their perpetrators are the ones to blame.
Empathy is particularly necessary in the life of your child because as kids develop the skills to walk in someone else’s shoes, they are being prepared to flip the tables on the safe haven our society gives abusers and perpetrators. As our children learn how to recognize and understand and feel what someone else is feeling, they will be empowered to stand up against victimization and exploitation of people around them.
What does empathy have to do with consent?
The ability to empathize prepares kids to engage in real conversations and real life situations when it comes to consent. Because empathy forces us to appreciate and value others, it frames relationships in a very different way. To someone who is empathetic, people don’t exist to serve them or give them what they want. People exist to be known and loved and cared for. This unselfish and others-focused perspective grows in a child and results in a whole human being who is capable of building deep connections with others.
If you examine the roots of abuse and assault, there is an element of off-the-charts self-centeredness. Perpetrators are blinded by their own wants and desires to the point that they can’t see the other person as an actual human being. By developing a strong sense of empathy in our children, we are helping them understand from an early age that every person is valuable and worthy of respect.
So when the time comes for them to engage in one-on-one relationships with people to whom they are attracted, they will have the tools to see that person as far more than just an object of their desire.
Teaching empathy isn’t the only thing a parent must do to raise a mindful person who respects others’ boundaries, but it’s a good place to start.
A final word…
To the mamas and daddies out there who find themselves paralyzed with fear sometimes at the world we are raising our children in, I want you to know you’re not alone. As a mama of two pre-adolescent boys, I’m right there with you.
Another thing I want you to know is that we have a glorious opportunity to empower our children and prepare them for many of the challenges they will face. It takes courage and bravery and a willingness to have awkward conversations sometimes, but I know that it will be worth it.
For some practical ways to build empathy in your child, check out “How Parents Can Cultivate Empathy in Children” by Richard Weissbourd and Stephanie Jones. Thank you for caring about this important topic. I’m glad to know that we are all walking this road together.