Shaping Our Definitions of Empathy & Kindness

Do we all truly grasp the importance of being empathetic and kind people? Do we sincerely see the need to teach empathy and kindness to our children? Much like anything else in life, if we do not take the time to understand the critical role these play in our lives, someone else will.


Have you seen the MasterCard commercial where a little girl is vacationing with her family and she loses her treasured stuffed animal? We see her sitting on a bench, sullen and sulky while her father rushes around, desperate to replace the cherished lost stuffy. When the young girl spots a new plush toy that she clearly feels a connection with, her father buys it for her without a second thought, whipping out his credit card to save the day. The tag line is something akin to “replacing the irreplaceable…Priceless.”


It may seem like a sweet commercial. It could be viewed as a testament to the father’s unconditional love for his child and his unfaltering desire to keep her happy. We have probably all found ourselves at one time or another doing whatever we can to put a smile on a loved one’s face. If we simply take the commercial at face value and don’t analyze it, then we may feel a sense of relief and even happiness for this little girl whose sadness has been washed away since her daddy saved the day.


What I wish to draw our attention to is the fact that a multi-billion dollar company is playing on our emotions to motivate us to spend money. Like any other financially successful company, they invest loads of cash on marketing research in order to create advertisements that will sway viewers to use their product. They are selling us the idea of an experience. An experience, by definition, involves emotions. Our emotions are what we use to define an experience. By creating commercials that revolve around enjoyable experiences to which we can relate, MasterCard has tapped into a brilliant marketing concept that has served them for over 17 years.


A child’s genuine, heartfelt smile is priceless. I doubt anyone would argue with that. When viewing this particular commercial, we are drawn to empathize with the little girl’s plight. Most of us can relate to the disappointment and sadness she is feeling at the loss of her favorite stuffed animal. As we watch the father frantically search to replace her prized possession,  we also can relate to that feeling of powerlessness and desire to fix the problem. The commercial is appealing not only to our natural instinct to empathize, especially with a child, but also to our natural desire to problem solve, in this case by replacing the irreplaceable.


Irreplaceable. This is where the (not so subtle) suggestion to solve problems with money (our hard-earned cash) comes into play. If we fail to pay attention to the deeper message embedded in the ad, then we unwittingly become influenced by the set of values they wish us to buy into, literally.


The stuffed animal, according to the ad, was irreplaceable. However, they managed to replace it. So which is it? It seems to me what the underlying message this little girl (along with those of us viewing of the ad) received is that when you lose something you love dearly, you can quickly patch up that pain by spending money. And the price doesn’t matter, so long as you love it. It’s priceless after all. (Before you accuse me of exaggerating, we need to acknowledge that the addiction to shopping, or consuming and amassing material goods, is very real and it has, by definition, an emotional component.)


Why I am writing about MasterCard’s brilliant marketing strategies on a blog intended to help us raise well-balanced children who know how to practice empathy and kindness? If we do not teach them the true meaning of these qualities, someone (or ‘something’) else will. The twisted message in this ad is that not only can we get what we want by sulking, but more importantly, things that are precious to us can be replaced with other material goods. I’m not suggesting that it’s MasterCard’s duty to teach our children morals and values, by any extent of the imagination. That is, hands down, our duty as parents. This is why I believe it is so important to sit with our kids to see what it is they are being exposed to when they watch television and to ask them their thoughts about it.


When this commercial played during the hockey game the other night, it was the perfect opportunity for a quick conversation.


“What do you girls think about the little girl getting what she wants by sulking?” I asked.


“It’s not good.” replied Mikella.


“How come?”


“Well, she’s just learning that she can get what she wants when she sulks, and that’s wrong.”


“Do you think it’s a good idea to try to fix our sadness about losing something special by replacing it right away with something else?”


“Not really, because you can never really replace something that’s one of a kind.” chimed in Yasmine.


Their responses left me feeling relieved. All the talks we had had up until that moment had clearly paid off. Of course, I went on to make a point about how it is important to allow ourselves to feel our emotions. The girl was sad, and rightfully so. A more appropriate response from the father however, would have been to reassure her that it’s normal to feel sad. He could have empathized with her by recalling a time when he lost something he cared about as a child. He could have helped her to imagine a sweet little story of how her stuffed animal was off to live new adventures. In guiding her towards the notion that her lifelong friend was ready to move on, she too could have learned a lesson in letting go. As parents, we must resist the urge to cheer our kids up at any cost. Our (sometimes desperate) search for happiness as adults is surely in part due to the fact that many of us were not taught how to honor our feelings as children. Let’s be the generation of parents who break the cycle. The kindest thing we can do for our children in their moments of sadness is to be physically and emotionally present for them in order to comfort them authentically and assure them that what they are feeling is normal. The kindest thing we can tell them is that we understand, and with time, their pain will heal. Let’s be the most important and influential storytellers in our children’s lives, not the marketing agencies who are lined up, morning ‘til night, eager to take our place.

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