When Kids See the Hard or Unfair Parts of Life, Teach them Empathy
By Tracey Steer
Photo © zinkevych/123RF
Mar 12, 2018
As my daughter and I walked towards the Metro station, we passed a homeless man sleeping on the floor with his back against the wall. My girl pressed herself to my side as we passed and gripped my hand tighter. I said nothing as we hurried along with scores of other busy commuters.
I watched her curly head crane backward for a second glance at the man, and then she whispered, “Sometimes when I see people like that, I sometimes feel afraid.”
“What scares you, love? Do you feel unsafe?” I asked.
“No…” she replied. “But I feel scared because… well, what happened to that man? Where is his family? It makes me worried that it could happen to me.”
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I squeezed her hand and said, “Don’t worry about that, you’ll be just fine. But all people have struggles, you know… some people’s struggles are harder than others.”
We talked about how sometimes people get dealt a bad hand in this life. We talked about mental illness and how hard it can be to stay on medication if you don’t have an address or a regular doctor. We talked about people who struggle with drugs and alcohol.
“They’re just trying to survive their lives,” she added, sagely. I told her everyone is just trying to survive their lives. And how on the other side of addiction is connection. And while kindness isn’t the cure for everything, we must try to take care of one another the best we can and stay connected. We have to see people. We can’t always fix the big problems, but we can always treat people like people.
Everyone. Everywhere. All of us.
Empathy works like a muscle. People get better at it with use and practice. Look around for places to flex it, because it builds a person from the inside out. We should put forth as much kindness into the world as we can, in any way that we can and as often as we can. I think it’s possible to be encouraging to anyone, even in small ways, without money or donations of goods.
Smile and say thank you to your weary cashier, even if he or she is a little surly. There’s a good chance that person has endured thirty or more unsmiling, thankless faces in a row. It takes nothing away from your day to be pleasant.
Hold the door open for the person coming in behind you, even if you have to wait another second or two. Or three. Be the person who helps the woman with the stroller make it up the stairs in the metro. It’s more helpful than you can imagine.
Empathy works like a muscle. People get better at it with use and practice.
Look a person in the eye when you’re talking. Young or old — it’s a respectful practice, and not a difficult one. And everyone could smile a little more. You’d be surprised how many people will smile right back at you. It’s a tiny bit of brightness in a sometimes very cold world.
As we made our way home, we saw people sitting in doorways with their palms out. We watched three young people picking through a trash can, surveying the dregs of cold liquid that remained at the bottom of takeout cups; sandwich remnants; and crumbs at the bottom of bags.
“Where are their parents?” she whispered to me after we’d passed.
I sighed, and told her I didn’t know. We pass yet another person asleep in a doorway.
“But that won’t happen to me, right?” she asked, with her round eyes trained on mine.
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Sometimes the world feels so crazy and unfair. It’s both endearing and heartbreaking to watch a nine-year-old contemplate the scary parts of what the future might hold, but it makes me smile to consider the bright, shiny possibilities. I try to shrug all the ‘what if?’ fears from my mind — the kind all parents have nagging at them in the middle of the night. But she’ll probably be just fine. I want her to feel in charge of herself and positive. I want her to feel the goodness of this life and share it with others.
“It’s not something you need to worry about, Peach. Just think of ways that you can be good to others. See people. Do what you can.”
I hugged her close as we boarded the metro for home and hoped with all my heart that I could will this into a working recipe for her life. For all of our lives. For all of us.
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