To empathize is to civilize. To civilize is to empathize. – Jeremy Rifkin
Do you believe it takes a village to raise a child? Your answer to this one question could very well determine whether or not you are ready to embrace the philosophy I am proposing. Examples abound around the world of societies who truly put this belief into practice. While I believe our society used to embrace this philosophy, we seem to have drifted away from this form of co-existence. Before we look at home and school environments, let’s take a moment to consider our behavior as a society in public spaces.
Consider the following circumstances. Imagine you are in a grocery store when a child starts pitching a fit. What goes through your mind? Do you immediately feel sorry for them? Or do you immediately start judging them? Although I have never outwardly passed judgement on a parent (at least I don’t think I have, selective memory perhaps!), I know in the past I have been guilty of being impatient in situations like these. Thoughts such as, “Children aren’t being taught how to behave these days!” or “What was that mother thinking bringing her child to the store when he’s clearly exhausted!” would go through my head.
Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to judge others than it is to empathize? To put ourselves in each other’s shoes takes time and effort. It means you have to hold back from jumping to conclusions and actually think about what that person might be going through. Add to that the fact that judging others can make us feel better about ourselves and it’s no wonder that we are amazed when we actually witness people doing the right thing even if they think nobody is watching. The truth I have come to realize is that many parents feel overwhelmed and at a loss as to how to react to their children at times and many of them are too proud to admit it. There is so much pressure in today’s society to be the perfect parent and very little space for allowing ourselves to ask for help when we need it. It all boils down to pride and it is getting in the way of living a more loving life. It is not for nothing that pride is often considered the worst of the seven deadly sins. It is our pride that leads us to judge ourselves as better than others. While drawing conclusions about what we would or would not do in any given situation can serve us, we rarely judge others with the pure intent to learn from the situation ourselves. The act of being judgemental feeds our sense-of-self, our ego, our pride and in most cases it does not serve the one being judged. We have all heard the expression, “Don’t kick me when I’m down.” and yet that is exactly what we are doing when we judge a stranger.
Now let’s imagine the same scenario with a twist. As you witness a child having a melt-down in the grocery store, the mother turns to you and says, “Any suggestions? I have no idea what to do!” I can’t help but think that you would be less harsh in your judgements. By appealing to you for help, she has openly admitted that she does not have all the answers to parenting. Well how about that. This is what “it takes a village to raise a child” looks like. Here is someone who is willing to put herself out there. How often have we actually witnessed this kind of behavior though? Unfortunately we don’t see it very often, but the more people who get on board with openly admitting to being imperfect, the more often these instances may occur.
What would a full-blown village mentality look like though? Let’s take this same grocery store scenario. It bears mentioning that this is a true story. It was 4pm on a late weekday afternoon when I ran into the grocery store to grab something for supper. As I rushed through the store, anxious to get what I needed, a little girl, no-older than four, launched into a fit. “I want Daddy!” she began screaming repeatedly at the top of her lungs. The mother spoke quietly with her daughter, asking her to stop, telling her they were almost done. This did nothing to discourage her daughter’s rant. “I want Daddy! I want Daddy!” she continued, tears now streaming down her face. The mother wasted no time getting the things she needed, dragging her child along with her as gently as possible, given the circumstances. I discretely observed the pair, fascinated by the mother’s outward air of calm. At no point did she lash out at her child, and after a few failed attempts to calm her down, she let her know in a quiet voice that they were almost done. She amazed me. To this day I wonder what was really going on? Had the dad gone away for business? Had the parents split-up? Was the little girl angry at her mom and trying to hurt her by demanding to have her father? Had the little girl missed her nap and so she was simply exhausted and completely beyond herself given the time of day? Either way, the mother’s resistance to engage in her child’s meltdown was something to behold. My guess would be that either she had mastered the art of hiding her emotions internally or, and I wish the latter to be true, she had mastered the art of empathy and compassion and we were witnessing it being put into action.
On that particular late-afternoon, we were an usual group of people. I say this because it was the first time that I ever witnessed such kindness and generosity of spirit from all the people in this mother’s vicinity. Not one person displayed impatience towards the child’s screaming. Surrounding this mother, an air of compassion blossomed. As she made her way to the self-check-out cash, I watched an older couple exchange a sympathetic look that said, “Oh my…remember those days?” The lady standing behind me in line at the cash smiled and said to me, “A mother’s job is never easy.” But best of all, was the cashier who spoke to me saying, “Poor thing, that little girl is really having a tough time, isn’t she?” Wow. I was so proud of us, this group of strangers thrown together and yet somehow connected on the same wave-length of empathy and compassion. Never have I seen so many strangers gathered in one place without at least one feeling the need to judge the situation in a negative light. It was beautiful. The question is: why is this so rare?
I cannot even count the number of times that I have witnessed judgemental stares in a shopping mall or a grocery store. It’s true that more and more parents seem scared to discipline their child in public, but why do we think that is? I get the sense that we are damned if we do or damned if we don’t. We are so busy worrying about what other people will think, that we forget to simply do what feels right. When fear of being judged is our motivator, we are doomed to fail! The next time you find yourself in this situation, I invite you to try something new. For one, resist judging the parent’s actions. It is none of your business and you have no idea what they have been through so far that day. If the opportunity presents itself, make a simple compassionate comment such as, “We’ve all had days like this before.” And to the stranger who is voicing a complaint you could say, “It’s people like you who make it hard for the mom to know what to do! Mind your business!” Just kidding! That may be what you are thinking, but instead of addressing the one doing the judging, how about saying something kind to the parent so that the “judger” can overhear you, followed by a kind smile aimed at the “judger”, eye contact and all. If you feel the need to say something, I recommend something to the effect of “A smile can go a long way.” or “I’m on a mission to build a kinder world. You’re welcome to join me.” Alright, I may have gone a little off-track here. It’s just to prove to you that I am on this journey to being a kinder and more empathic person, too. I’m modeling that we may have thoughts that are unkind, but that does not mean we should act on them, and if we give ourselves a moment to think before we act, our heart can take over for our ego and beautiful things can happen…
What am I trying to say? I’m saying that before we even talk about the relationship between home and school, we need to look at our everyday interactions with strangers. What are we doing to take care of one another? We need to be able to handle these everyday situations with basic kindness and grace. Why? At the end of the day, we are all human. We will all make mistakes and they will not always be in the privacy of our own home. If we cannot find compassion for a mother struggling to get groceries done with a toddler in tow, how can we expect to find empathy for the teacher who loses her patience with her students, or the parent who berates his child in front of the teacher, or the child who is rude to his mother in the midst of a family gathering. We must learn to be less insecure, less fearful of what others will think, and allow our hearts to lead in the place of our pride, if we expect to teach our kids the necessary life lessons for today’s world.