I Feel Your Pain
If I see one more bumper sticker crowing about how awesome someone’s kid is, I might just have to side swipe their car, thus sending these pretentious jackasses careening into the ditch below. Honest to God, can you just get over yourselves already and stop with the self-congratulatory affirmations meant to expose your own fine job of parenting as much as it is to actually praise your child? It’s not that I’m against high achieving kids. As hard as it may be to believe given the pathetic fulfillment I have had of my once unbridled promise, I was once one of them. No, it’s not the kids that are oh so annoying; it’s the parents that need to pipe down. Do you really believe that any of us who are not sitting inside your car actually care? Because we don’t. We applaud you and your child for being on the honor roll, for playing varsity soccer, or for remaining drug and sex free, but c’mon, do we all need to know about it?
Ok, I know this is an odd and caustic start to a column extolling the virtues of empathy, but I must admit that I’m tired of hearing about how awesome some kid is because of their academic accomplishments, athletic skill, or annoying moral platitudes. There is more to being a good person and having a happy life than this. And that, my friends, is where empathy comes in.
Whenever I think of what it means to have empathy, I think of Atticus’s advice to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Empathy is the character skill that allows us to understand someone else’s perspective, the combined experiences that make them who they are, even when it is vastly different than our own. This does not mean that you need to agree with that perspective; it just means you have to care enough to try to understand it.
In today’s politically divided world, we have become so convinced of our own correctness, so entrenched in our own viewpoints, that we sometimes forget that empathy is at the essence of appreciating others and finding a compromise. Studies continue to demonstrate a measurable decline in empathy over the last 30 years. In fact, according to a University of Michigan study published in Personality and Social Psychology Review, almost 75 percent of students today using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index rate themselves as less empathic than the average student 30 years ago. Should we really be surprised at the correlating increases in violence, bullying, and self-absorption?
Hardly- because empathy represents a developed emotional intelligence that leads to other possibilities in our conflicts with others. It helps us reach across the table to find common solutions rather than turning inwards to double down on our own perspective. More and more studies are confirming the vital importance empathetic understandings have in the general well-being and success of young people going forward. Students who have developed a sense of empathy work more cooperatively with others, are better able to find creative solutions to problems, and most important, have higher ratings of happiness and self-worth than those lacking the ability to relate to others.
Could this be at the root of some of our stagnation in solving the major issues of our times? You better believe it. How can we find common answers to society’s woes when we are sitting there with our fingers stuck in our ears as we incessantly scream our own opinion at the top of our lungs? The young people who are raised to develop their sense of empathy, to hear others with the same respect and compassion that they themselves would like to be heard with- these will be the people who work together to devise the answers we need to combat the global problems facing our world in the decades to come.
I know my kids’ grades are important. I help them with their homework, we study their vocab lists, and I try to give them every academic support I can to assist in their growth. I know that we all as parents want to see our kids succeed, but maybe we need to look a little deeper about just what it means to be “successful”. Perhaps a well-lived life is more than just good grades and being proficient at sports. Maybe if we spent as much time teaching our kids to have empathy for others, guiding them through the process of truly hearing others and validating their thoughts and emotions, maybe then we could raise children who subsequently become adults that find compromise rather than conflict, that move forward rather than dwelling in the past, that seek to make the world a better place rather than merely benefitting themselves. In other words, maybe we can teach them a path to real happiness and success.
On my better days as a parent, I like to think I get there. I simply love the young people my kids are becoming, as I watch them care for others in a way that is often inspiring. I hope that I have had some role to play in helping them get there. The other day a friend of mine remarked at how strikingly thoughtful and genuine my son Tobias was. She told me that she wanted to give me a bumper sticker to put on my car that read “Proud Parent of a Kind Kid”. Now that I’ll stick on my car anytime.
Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works. Read his blog TRUTH: in 1000 Words or Less every TUESDAY and FRIDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com