The greatest revolution in our generation is that of human beings, who by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.
~ William James
The background story …
The following morning, I began to strategize in earnest. This wasn’t a conversation that I was going to try to wing. No, I needed a plan. I called Brooke’s inclusion specialist and asked for her help. She promised to send some books home in Brooke’s backpack. They would all be aimed at elementary schoolers, which wouldn’t be appropriate for neighborhoodgirl’s middle and high school siblings, but we agreed that they’d help us brainstorm. I thanked her profusely, hung up the phone and wondered where to go next. I sat for a minute feeling pretty lost. And then I did what I often do when I don’t know where else to go. I went inward.
What have Luau and I learned over the years about empathy? (Set a spell – this could take a while!)
Where does compassion come from?
Can it be taught?
What have we done to instill in our children an appreciation for the vast spectrum of human differences?
What conversations do we wish were taking place in every house on our block?
When I got home that night, I read through the books that the inclusion specialist had sent home. Katie sat down with me and peeked over my shoulder. “Ooh, I LOVE this book,” she exclaimed as she grabbed It’s O.K. to be Different, by Todd Parr. She’s always been a fan of his books, ever since she first brought home The Family Book back in kindergarten. It’s fabulous, but it wasn’t going to offer a lot of guidance for how to talk to the older kids.
I delved into the next book, then set it aside fairly quickly – sharply reminded that I have apparently developed a strong aversion to the word disability. That’s a post unto itself, but I decided that the books weren’t going to be of much help in crafting the conversation.
I searched back for the ‘book’ of sorts that I’d put together with Brooke’s former teacher when Brooke had just started kindergarten. A dear friend had approached me back then asking for help. His two sons are classmates of both of my girls and he wanted to figure out how best to talk to them about differences. I looked in vain back then for something age appropriate but came up dry and frustrated.
Deciding that I had to create something, I went to the fabulous teacher from Brooke’s integrated preschool and begged for her help. Together, we came up with this. And while it’s obviously written for the six and under set, I thought the general idea was pretty well transferable. And so I had the beginnings of a loosely formulated plan of action – a rough framework of the syllabus for Teaching Empathy 101.
We scheduled the meeting with neighborhoodgirl’sparents for the following Saturday evening, just before a school fundraising event. It was wedged-in by design. I needed an end time. I needed to know that if we were going down in flames, we’d have an out. And so, we had merely forty-five minutes to actually sit down together.
As we got dressed for the evening, Luau and I chatted. It was the first time all week that we’d actually been able to talk about any of it. “Ok, Hon,” I began, “do you have a plan?”
He gave me the patented husband-as-golden-retriever look. And just for good measure, he added,”Huh?”
I’d admit that the question had an element of sport in it. I’d tell you that I knew damned well that he didn’t have a plan but that I asked the question anyway just to make it clear that I’d been working on this all week and that at least one of us had done the homework. But that wouldn’t have been nice. It would have been downright childish. And I certainly would never, um, ever do something like that to my dear husband. So, nothing to see here. Moving on …
“All right, Babe. So here’s what I’m thinking,” I said. I ran through my plan and asked if he was comfortable with it. He was. I asked if he felt there was anything that needed to be added. He didn’t. I told him I’d be happy to lead off. He said, “Huh?” We decided I’d lead off.
We were a few minutes late. Try as I might these days, I seem to be incapable of making it out of the house on time. Late is my new early. As we walked to the door I suddenly wondered if we should have brought something. A bottle of wine? Flowers? I wondered if Emily Post has anything on the topic. When headed to a neighbor’s home with the weight of the world on one’s shoulders, it’s always best to bring …. guest soap? We rang the door empty-handed.
They came to the door together and invited us in. We shared some pleasantries – we complimented their beautiful home and talked a bit about how funny it is that we live so close and neither of us had ever been inside the other’s home. But time was short, so we quickly got down to business.
“So,” I ventured, “Neighborhoodgirl’smom, you had mentioned on the phone that you’d like us to talk about some suggestions for talking to your kids. We thought maybe we could share some of the ideas that we’ve found most helpful over the years.” I was nervous about sounding lecture-y. I thought sharing sounded a lot better then telling.
Both she and her husband nodded eagerly. Before that evening I’d never shared more than a wave with the husband, but I decided within a minute and a half that I liked him. He had an easy, open smile and an endearing habit of nodding as I spoke.
I talked a little bit about the book that Jen and I had created. Its objective, I explained, was to build empathy. To begin the process of getting our kids to think about difference in the context of their own lives, I’d found that the best method is to start with THEMSELVES and then work their way out.
We talked about the fact that every one of us has unique strengths and challenges. That each of us has traits that make us similar to one crowd while standing out in another. I suggested starting the conversation by asking their children to sit down and make a list of the things they felt that they were particularly good at and then to follow up with areas of challenge. Then I suggested doing the same with traits that made them the same as their friends and traits that made them different. Make a list. Write it down. Engage them in the process.
With that list in hand, talk to them about how those differences and challenges make them feel. If your child says they are great at math but they read at a much slower pace than many of their friends, ask them how they would like their friends to react. Would they want their friends to tease them? Call them a slow poke? Point and laugh? How would those reactions make them feel?
Would they like their friends to quietly ask if they’d like help? Or would they prefer that their friends simply go about their own work and leave them to theirs, not calling attention to something that might make them uncomfortable?
Every child will have a different answer, of course. My friend’s son had focused on his food allergies. He couldn’t eat what his friends were eating and nearly always had his own food with him. My friend asked his son how that made him feel – being different from his friends. Did he like it when they asked about his food? Did he prefer to fly under the radar unnoticed? Was it hard to feel different from his friends? How did it make him feel?
And what about their friends’ differences? When they notice that a friend has challenges, how might they respond to them? How might their reactions make their friends feel?
Over the years, I have discovered that I learn best from the inside out. That while we may need to seek information from the outside, humanity is to be found on the inside. Without truly internalizing this stuff, it floats somewhere just outside of our grasp – rote rather than real. Compassion might have to be felt not taught, but we can teach our children where to find it within themselves.
Neighborhoodgirl’sparents were incredibly receptive. They asked wonderful questions and expanded on our ideas. They promised to talk to their children. They said that they’d like to have BOTH of our girls over – soon. They let us know that they’d like us to feel comfortable addressing their daughter directly should we choose to in the future. They told us that we had their full permission to talk to her should anything similar ever happen again.
We had to run to make it to the fundraiser. I’d thought I’d be relieved to have to leave, but I was actually somewhat disappointed that a great conversation was ending. I felt like we’d made new friends.
As we walked to the car, I looked at Luau and remembered his words. “Well then that’s exactly what we’ll do.”
I guess we did.
Being a mom – particularly this kind of mom – has pushed me far past my comfort zone. It’s taken me to some beautiful places and to some pretty ugly places. It’s escorted me to the darkest anger and the purest love. It’s forced me to confront not just the rest of the world’s prejudices and insecurities, but my own. It’s shown me what really matters and what really, really doesn’t. And it’s reminded me how similar we all really are.
We all want our children to be safe and healthy and happy. And if we work together – if we lead our children by example and show them what it means to not just tolerate but to celebrate one another – warts and all – I’m convinced we can help with the happy.
So maybe we didn’t bring guest soaps, but you know – I’m pretty sure that we didn’t show up empty-handed.
Candle from Getty Images