The Gift of Empathy

A few months ago, my daughter and her best friend were doing an art project at my dining room table. My 6-year-old daughter announced that she didn’t like the color brown. And her best friend took offense at that because she is brown.

I identify as heterosexual, white female. I am so unambiguous about that identification that it’s hard for me to imagine what life for someone who doesn’t identify that way is like.

Except for the gift of empathy. Through empathy I can tap into my tenderness as a parent start to understand how parents of black and brown kids hope their child will confidently walk the path to their full potential. And how those parents must cross their fingers and hope their children won’t suffer anyone’s cruelty especially for something as superficial as their skin color, even as they know they will.

Through empathy I can relate how exposed I felt when I decided to become a single parent to how someone who feels like coming out with their sexual orientation might bump against family expectations for success.

Through empathy, I can feel every emotion that I’ve hidden behind my sunniness to conjure sorrow for men who are told they need to man-up and not show their emotions as they walk through the troubles of their life.

Empathy is the way that I can acknowledge that the Center of me is the same as the Center of you, no matter how you identify.

As my daughter tried to find the words to say that not liking brown was not a reflection of how she felt about her friend, I listened and appreciated the frankness of children. They don’t mince words and so they more effectively teach what it feels to be in their skin.

I will never be perfect at not offending someone or get it right to imagine what it’s like to be anyone else. But I can try in every situation to empathize, to ask “say more” and to learn.

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(featured photo from Pexels)

23 thoughts on “The Gift of Empathy

  1. I’m repeating a comment I made to another post on empathy. It’s easy to envision a workshop that would teach empathy to children. Why don’t they exist as part of basic education?

    1. I love your idea of a workshop, Vic. It’s great! I have to say that the schools are getting closer. My daughter attends public school and they started with the discussion about feelings in Kindergarten. In preschool for my son, they are teaching emotional awareness too which is a good sign.

  2. Interesting blog post Wynne. I can imagine how it feels having kids and having one who finds it offensive to say something like “That color is not my favorite”. You are a good parent from what I read here and being appreciative to these kids is the right way to show emphathy.

    1. Thank you for such a lovely comment. I think you are right that being appreciative to these kids is the right way to show empathy. Thanks for adding that to the discussion!

  3. I love the honest, literal, and fearless discussion among children. Everyone wins when we encourage and support early conversations about topics some may consider “difficult.”

    On a funny note, I remember getting ready to have the “biracial” discussion with my son when he was 1 or 2. He’d asked: “Mommy, you are brown and Daddy is pinkish. What does that make me?” I need not have bothered with my carefully considered response. His excited reply later, in line at the grocery store: “Me know! Me beige-ish!”

    1. I love this story. And it reminds me that as parents we prepare the long-winded explanations of subjects when our kids just want short answers – and come up with their own!

      You are so right that we all win when we support conversations about difficult topics! Love this comment – thanks for adding to this conversation!!

  4. I agree- kids are often much better communicators than adults even though they can sometimes be brutal.

    1. That’s so true, Todd. They are willing to have the conversations that sometimes adults shy away from but sometimes the edge comes with that unfiltered approach.

  5. What a wonderful post, Wynne. Thank you for sharing your insights with us. What a smile the following brought to my face: “Center of me is the same as the Center of you, no matter how you identify.” Insert applause here….

    1. So true!! We’d all be better off. But I think the schools are getting closer to teaching it (at least in elementary school) so we’re making progress!

  6. In life, there is as much obligation to not take offense as there is not to give offense. Oftentimes both actions are unintentional and unknowing. This way much pain and anger is avoided

    1. That’s a great point, Fred. We don’t have to take offense and I always find that when I’m feeling balanced, I have a much better time in doing that.

  7. I totally agree with your sentiments in this wonderful post.
    Empathy is indeed a gift.

    It is easy to teach empathy to young children as they don’t see the world as grown-ups do. I always had an integrated class of diverse and regular ed, special ed, and gifted and talented students. (I had assistance from paraprofessionals so all students were served equally).

    My students accepted each other as little human beings and did not see their differences (unless someone pointed out the differences to them). I used to buddy my special ed students with the regular ed and GT and it helped them to develop empathy. My regular ed students worked at their pace and if they so aspired, I gave them assignments that the GT students were working on. So, the GT students realized that anyone of their classmates could work hard, be tested, and get a GT certificate.

    If there was any talk of “difference” among the students I would have a class meeting. And explain that “When we are hurt, we all bleed red. So, before you hurt someone, think how you would feel if you were hurt by someone.”

    1. Chaya – this is a brilliant comment on teaching empathy. Thank you for this gift. In fact, it should be a post all of its own. But “When we are hurt, we all bleed red.” is such a simple yet powerful way in to that lesson. Thank you, thank you, thank you for adding this to my conversation and giving me some more ways to talk about empathy with my kids. Sending my best!

  8. Great post Winnie! I love when you say – Empathy is the way that I can acknowledge that the Center of me is the same as the Center of you, no matter how you identify – it is so true!

  9. Wonderful reminder of empathy’s power. I regret that we (read Americans) tend to think of empathy only as a skill to use when things are difficult for someone else. We seem to use it to talk about grief or persecution or other challenging situations. I think it would be healthy and empowering if we could adapt the word for use in times of joy and excitement. I have long been playing with the idea that Empathy is like Curiosity turned outwards, it is curiosity about what someone else is going through. How amazing would it be if we were all a bit more enraptured, excited and supporting about the positive ideas and life situations of others, and felt the need to step into their shoes with words of encouragement, in the same way we feel when someone is going through suffering? Thank you for the article!

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