If you asked me to name the qualities I most want to instill in my children, empathy would be in the top three.
In my youth, like most kids, I cared mostly about myself and how everything affected me. But as I got older and saw more of the world, I began to understand how lucky I was to grow up safe, loved, and wanting for very little. When I had three healthy children who opened my heart, I learned new depths of gratitude.
When looking for a place to live, Wilson and I chose a town where our kids would meet all kinds of people with different backgrounds and experiences. We donate to charity and volunteer for several organizations, sometimes with the kids. At holiday time, we give gifts to a family who can’t afford them.
I watch the news with my boys (ages 13, 10, and 7) most nights and try to talk to them about other places in the world where kids don’t have access to food, clean water, and an education. They wonder how those kids live without an Xbox.
I hope it’s sinking in, but you just never know.
I’d like my children to occasionally do things out of the goodness of their hearts, not because they feel forced. I’d like them to think about the feelings of others when making decisions.
Their empathy will increase as they mature and their brains are less wired to self-absorption. But sometimes it feels like a personal failure when my boys are mean to another kid, ignore cruelty by others, or act unsympathetic towards a stranger.
This week, 7-year-old Eli accompanied me to Trader Joe’s. He LOVES to use those mini shopping carts and help me check out. As I was bagging my groceries, an elderly woman stood behind Eli, watching him furiously unloading our cart onto the checkout counter. Smiling ear to ear, she started chatting with him and marveling at his eagerness to help. We exchanged some cute banter about how fortunate I am to have my own professional, handsome checkout boy.
As I was paying, the woman moved to another aisle to check out. I whispered to Eli that he should go help her unload her cart. At first he looked confused, wondering why he would help a stranger. I explained to him that she was older and needed assistance, and would get a kick out of his gesture. He shrugged his shoulders and went over to help her.
I was busy checking out and loading my bags, but when I looked over to walk out, Eli had put all her groceries on the counter and the woman was beaming. As we exited the store I got a warm feeling inside. Eli grinned as he strutted to the car. I told him how pleased I was that he helped the woman:
“Didn’t it feel good to be nice and help someone? She’ll probably go back home and tell all her friends about the adorable little boy who unloaded her groceries. I’m so proud of you for helping!” I cried.
He kept smiling as he pulled a crisp dollar bill from his pocket. “She gave me this!!!” he shouted with glee.
My heart sank.
That little stinker was giddy because his selfless deed was rewarded with cash!
Was the empathy message lost in the excitement of spending plans for his new fortune?
I hope not.
I’d like to think Eli would have been just as happy leaving the store, knowing he helped someone, even if his pocket was empty.
But I’m not so sure.