Empathy

It’s perhaps inevitable, now that I’m a mother, that when I come across stories such as this recent one about the light sentence meted out to the Stanford swimmer who raped an unconscious girl, my thoughts turn to his parents. To hers too, of course, their anguish and what must be horrible pain, but the complicated thoughts have to do with his parents. What are they feeling/thinking? What did they do/not do? Of course, one knows a child’s actions aren’t always within a parent’s influence or control. Yet now that I’m a parent, I really can’t help wanting to know – could they have done anything to prevent this?

The victim statement from the girl was so powerful and eloquent – no wonder it went viral. Next to it, the boy’s father’s letter pleading for leniency looked all the more feeble and unfeeling. I hesitate to criticise – hoping never to have to know what it’s like to be in his shoes – yet he really seems blind to the severity of his son’s actions and the horrible impact those “twenty minutes” will have on a young lady for life, only able to see his son’s suffering for his own actions (not the alcohol culture on campus etcetc as he tries to argue).

This piece from WP’s On Parenting reflects on this:

So, how can parents use this horror as a lesson? Maybe they need to start by making sure they aren’t making excuses for their kids. Like the time that little Joe hit the neighbor kid and his dad said: “Well, he was provoked. Also, he had a lot of candy today. We need to stop feeding him so much sugar.” Or when Jane cheated on a test and mom said: “Well, that teacher just can’t teach. Otherwise, she would have aced it. She’s so smart.” Did it grow into a time when he skipped school and got drunk, and mom and dad said boys will be boys? Or did she shun a friend from the group to the point where the girl was depressed? What are we doing in our lives to raise kids who are lacking in empathy, and always blaming the other guy for their missteps?

The piece goes on to talk about how that empathy can be taught, and modelled:

And just be kind, parents. To yourselves, to others, because your little ones are watching. So congrats to you all if they are off to an Ivy League school with a big old scholarship. But as we can see here, and in other cases, if that’s all there is, that’s really … nothing.

I can’t see any parents I know disagreeing with this. But perhaps where we trip up is in loving our own children, how to distinguish between showing them empathy (understanding, caring for another person) and, I can’t find a good word for it, but a misplaced kindness that is no longer able to see things for what they are – a child misbehaving, for eg. And, I think the inclination to empathise more with your own child/loved one to the extent of being blind to another person’s pain – that’s the other tricky piece to beware of. As this other father writes to Brock’s father

You love your son and you should. But love him enough to teach him to own the terrible decisions he’s made, to pay the debt to society as prescribed, and then to find a redemptive path to walk, doing the great work in the world that you say he will. For now though, as one father to another: help us teach our children to do better — by letting them see us do better.

Anyway, a good reminder to always be kind, and to be kind wisely.

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