Ironically, as Children’s Day comes around, the headlines are consumed with the Ryan International school case, where a teenager is charged with having murdered a younger fellow student, with whom he once took piano lessons.
Recently, my 10-year-old niece confided that her classmate, a student who topped the class, was stressed out because the largely absentee parents pressurised her constantly to get good marks. The little girl also expressed feeling violent tendencies towards her brother. However, after a talk with an empathetic class-teacher, some counselling and medication, she’s reportedly doing much better. Kids need nurturing, a feeling of connectedness and a safe zone where they can discuss their problems and, most importantly, feelings. But, for that, one needs to put away the mobile phone and learn to talk emotions with a child.
In the Ryan murder case, the provocation was something as senseless as creating a distraction to avoid the impending exams. But, who is to blame here, really? Is it the allegedly criminal tendencies of the teenager, an education system that creates stress or simply, a lack of connectedness and thus, empathy? If you could imagine another person’s pain, before you do something hurtful, would you still go ahead and do it? Probably not.
But, as parents get busy on their gadgets, not looking their kids in the eye when they try to engage with them, the latter tend to mimic the same behaviour. With dinner time dominated by the idiot box and social interactions decreasing, it requires a conscious effort to tune into a child’s needs. As Mitch Albom narrated in the book Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man, And Life’s Greatest Lesson, “Each time we talk, he listens to me ramble, then he tries to pass on some sort of life lesson. He warns me that money is not the most important thing, contrary to the popular view on campus. He tells me I need to be ‘fully human.’ He speaks of the alienation of youth and the need for ‘connected-ness’ with the society around me.”
With a serious lack of emotional quotient and lack of quality face-to-face interactions, one can imagine that if you play enough video games, where you’re constantly scoring by shooting down your opponents, then perhaps another human being also seems another pawn waiting to be knocked down.
So, how can you teach your child empathy? And, in a world that’s wired towards attaining success, why should you stress on such soft skills? Michele Borba answers the question in her book UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, “Tuning in to feeling is what sensitises kids to other people’s feelings and helps them take on another person’s perspective. The Empathy Advantage of teaching this habit is huge: kids who are adept at recognising, understanding, and expressing their emotions are healthier, more resilient, and more popular; they do better in school; and they are more apt to help others.”
Whether it’s getting your child to spend time with underprivileged children, playing with a baby or assuming responsibility of a pet, Borba recommends that parents “Be an emotion coach. Find natural moments to connect face-to-face, to listen, and then validate your child’s feelings.” She also suggests reading books that talk about feelings, such as Glad Monster, Sad Monster: A Book About Feelings, by Ed Emberley and Anne Miranda; Feelings, by Aliki and I’m Mad, by Elizabeth Crary.
In a crazy world, where guns and violence seem the solution, the only hope is to teach empathy at a young age. And, it’s up to us, family members and mentors, to take the lead.
(The writer is an editorial consultant and co-founder of The Goodwill Project. She tweets @anuvee. Views expressed are personal.)