teaching empathy

Watching our new fave obsession Survivor tonight with the guys, as one of the recently voted-off contestants poignantly shared her sadness at leaving the game, we experienced a game-changing moment ourselves.

Z: “Charlie’s eyes are all teary and watery! Ha ha ha.” 

C: “Shut up Zach.”

JG: “Zach, don’t be a jerk. Leave your brother alone. Have some empathy!” 

Z: “My eyes were teary too!”

JG: “Exactly.”

We then had a discussion about the values of kindness and empathy and not ever making their friends or family feel bad (Shout-out to my 6th grade teacher Jeff Sloan my correct usage of bad) about their feelings or what they’re going through. Yes, kind of a heavy moment generated from a Reality Show, (who says that TV isn’t an excellent educational tool?) but these are the kinds of moments that you have to grab on to when presented with the opportunity.

I’ve been super open and upfront with the kids about my CJ.  I don’t want to hide it from them (It doesn’t mean that I share the nitty-gritty details of my surgery and reconstruction with them though – we talk in honest but general terms.) Last week when I had hit my lowest point emotionally, and the guys came home from basketball practice and greeted me with hugs, I started to cry a little. They asked me what was wrong and I explained I’d had a ‘bad day’ and was feeling sad about it.

JG: “You know how sometimes you feel kind of down and sad and tired and don’t know why, especially on Sunday nights? That’s just how I’m feeling today. Sad and tired.”

C: “That’s okay mommy. I love you.”

[Aww. Melt.]

Z: “Are you going to die?” 


Luckily I had been semi-prepared for this question, as I knew it was coming at some point. I told them that no I wasn’t going to die today, but yes some people do sometimes die from cancer. They knew this already because we had lost a dear friend (and father of a classmate of theirs) earlier this year and we shared the pain and sadness with them. They’ve seen us grieve and how we keep his memory alive with funny stories. I reassured them that my cancer was really small, that they discovered it early, that I was otherwise healthy and going to take strong medicine to help me get better but it might take some time. I reminded them that while I was getting better and stronger every day physically, that it’s different than how I’m sometimes doing with my feelings.

[There’s a really great article here about talking to kids about cancer]

I want my kids to understand that people get sad, and it’s okay to feel sadness and that it’s not an emotion that you have to deny or be embarrassed about. It’s not a sign of weakness and it’s not a bad thing. I want them to learn to be open with their feelings whatever they may be, and feel comfortable sharing them to those who care about them. Like many girls her age, Miss J has experienced a bit of predictable “girl drama” in school this year and we’ve subsequently had a lot of open conversations about her feelings. While I can empathize with her and share my own childhood friendship battle scars (and my heart breaks for her), I’m also heartened that she feels safe confiding in me.

Sharing challenges, pain, regret, and bad decisions can be the glue that binds people together during trying times. Especially when the person on the other end can show empathy by essentially saying, “Yes. I get you. I’ve gone through something similar. I know that emotion. I remember how I felt.” [Need a quick reminder on empathy vs. sympathy?] The closest friendships that I savor and enjoy are the ones where we can be super honest with each other in this regard. And no ‘judgies‘.

So while the list of things that I want to teach these pint-sized human beings we share our home with are many of the things my own parents taught me and grows every day – Responsibility! Good study habits! Honesty! Self-Reliance! Brush your teeth! Read the instruction manual! Have a hide-a-key! How to drive downtown to Union Square! – empathy is right up there with the rest of them.



2 Responses

  1. Jennifer,

    First of all, I will again say how proud I am of you. Usually I joke around. Today I maintain just how impressed I am when reading the gift of communication you provide your children.

    Never forget that all interactions with your precious kids, especially at times like this, are opportunities for connections and create lifetime memories. No matter how brief or simple those times, they all are Kodak moments. Those moments you shared are rare and special between a parent and child that become more memorable and cherished than any birthday toy. I am going to try to make a point to you about your special times.

    I used to play one-on-one basketball with my son when he was your kids’ age. I’m a big boy; he was in middle school.

    Ever since Richard was in kindergarten, we played one-on-one. It was just the two of us on the court, but winning meant something. We made a big deal out of it, and the loser had to buy the winner a meal at the restaurant of his choice. His choice was much less expensive than mine, so the competition was fierce.

    Usually, there was no one there to watch us go at it- just the two of us clawing at one another, calling fouls at the slightest of contact. Occasionally, Sharon would come out to offer us drinks, letting Sammydog out in the process, and disrupting the flow of the game. Her sports’ malapropisms would make Yogi Berra envious. Somehow, it’s always when I’m scoring and Richard immediately called for a takeover due to his mother’s bad timing. I think there’s a signal of some sort. It’s all too predictable.

    There were no friends there, no neighbors, no scoreboard. But somehow, our competition was more memorable than any Super Bowl.

    There’s something unique about one-on-one basketball. The physical touching, pushing, hand checking is constant. Sometimes our games got tense, and we got ticked at each other, but we never lost sight of the the real purpose.

    Eventually the years passed and magnified one undeniable fact: I was no longer the college basketball player I was, and Richard soon hit his prime. He had new shake and bake moves and I looked foolish watching him leave me in the dust. My moves remained constant, and it’s only fair that his should have too, right?

    I remember when he was eight years old and had trouble even getting the ball up to the hoop. I would help him, and I would always let him win. But things change. Once junior high hit, I never let him win, and even though he was disappointed for losing, I told him that his time would soon come and when he legitimately could beat me, he would certainly experience the glory and joy of the result. He started to get bigger and better, and I didn’t. The balance changed. He started to win occasionally, and I started to have trouble keeping up.

    Sometimes I think Richard was a little uncomfortable about this development. Yes, he had the strength and stamina. But in a way, I don’t think our kids want the years to pass so quickly. There is one thing that is usually unspoken between all of us: the idea that one day this will have to end. Neither of us is sure how many more years it will be appropriate for the older of us to keep sweating, diving, bumping, and jumping for a dinner-takes-all game. When we finally stop, there will be the loss of a connection, and many of the good feelings about being father and son will be gone. I don’t say that I dread the thought of that day- but I sure don’t look forward to it. Mine is no different than all dads’ images in their children’s eyes. Dads are special athletes to their children, and to see that tarnished at all, even occasionally to see age overtake us, is only to be cruelly reminded how temporal and fragile we all are, how elusive and brief the perfection in the eyes of little ones.

    For the record, the father defeated the son our last championship 24-20. It cost him dinner, and I teased him unmercifully when he took his wallet out. I expect nothing less each time the tables turn. Richard is old enough now that the final score is secondary to the purpose.

    I’m relieved to know that it has become fashionable, dare I say truthful, to acknowledge when in the spotlight that there remains something larger than the individual glory. The sensation we both get when we’re there together is the true definition of happiness, and I have no doubt that the tradition will be passed on for future generations.

    In the end, and whenever the end, it wasn’t so much the basketball. It never was. Nor are the times with your shopping trips, football pools, or bonding time question and answers with your kids. Bank on it. It’s so much more than empathy that you’re giving them.

    Mr. Swalooone

  2. And ANOTHER thing….I saw you gave me a “shout out.” Before that term became the new way to acknowledge the last few years, let’s remember when Jennifer Morris “shouted out” in class all the time? Jeez, you invented the shout out during every lesson. Let’s also “shout out” when you “shouted out” DURING Jennifer Atterman’s wedding…..”What am I, chopped liver?” Classic.

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