The Nugget Chronicles: Teaching Empathy

Recently, there have been some truly terrible events happening in the United States. To be fair, there have been some truly terrible events happening globally, but I’m specifically thinking about these particular events that are pitting people against each other. Events that, because they are happening in my national backyard, so to speak, are at the forefront of my mind. Events that, honestly, could and should have been avoided, but weren’t, and now the repercussions are being felt strongly.

To be clear, this post is in no way shape or form meant to assign blame to one side or another. It isn’t to act like I know what’s right, and it certainly isn’t meant to diminish anyone’s feelings about these things. And, honestly, it isn’t about any one singular event in particular, because there’s just been too much as of late. Some are still ongoing, and some have died down, leaving the participants to pick up the pieces.

No, what this post is about is wondering what I can do to help raise Nugget in a way that keeps her from perpetuating some of these terrible mentalities.

A big reason why I’m worried that Nugget will be somewhat isolated from these types of events is that we are raising her from a position of privilege. Hell, I’m pretty much walking proof of that privilege. After all, I’ve been given the opportunity to not work a standard job because I have chosen to take a more active role in the day-to-day raising of my daughter. This choice was not forced upon me by my gender, by my ancestry, or by my education level. In fact, those elements, combined with the fact that I got pretty darned lucky in the marriage department, actively facilitated my choice. Choosing to be a stay-at-home parent did not impact our ability to have or keep our house. It didn’t result in us forcing to scrimp and save in order to put something approximating “enough” food on the table. It hasn’t prevented us from doing things for fun, and it certainly hasn’t put us into a position where we have to choose which bill gets paid this month. This is a remarkable privilege that we’ve found ourselves in.

To be clear, I’m not saying for a minute that we didn’t work hard to get the things that we have, or the opportunities. I do, however, acknowledge that we didn’t have anywhere near the number of barriers that others have to face, and that allowed doors to at least be set ajar for us, requiring only the right nudge to swing the rest of the way open. After all, privilege isn’t having everything handed to you… it’s simply having fewer obstacles standing in your way.

When I think about this, and when I think about the issues that are plaguing the country right now, I worry. I worry that the world is getting more dangerous, even though I know statistically it is not. I worry that I am only helping to perpetuate the injustices that I see, even though I’m trying to at least draw the right people’s attention to them. I worry that I too often take a stance of silence, out of fear of retribution or, worse, fear of losing people who once were friends. Ultimately, I worry that I will not be able to raise Nugget to be better. To be more compassionate. To be more understanding.

It’s hard to understand what someone else is going through when you have never walked in their shoes. That’s a truth about human nature. We just don’t have a frame of reference for someone else’s misery. Sure, we can offer sympathy, and we can lend a shoulder, but it doesn’t mean that we “get” it. Part of the problem with what’s happening now, as I see it, is that not enough people are willing to even try. Empathy has become a weakness, as opposed to a value.

This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. And it certainly isn’t what I want Nugget to grow up with.

I want my daughter to have empathy for others. Instead of mocking or belittling people who are hurting, I want her to lift them up. I want her to be part of a global community that knows, not just believes, that everyone should have the same opportunities before them, and that your personal investment is what gets you what you want. I want her to tear down establishments that aren’t working any more; not physically, but through her words, her mind, and her compassion. However, if there’s a need for physical action, I want her to follow through with conviction, and concern for the downtrodden.

I want my daughter to grow with empathy.

I never want to hear my daughter say that she’s “an ally, but…”. I don’t want her to offer unsolicited advice when none is being sought. I don’t want her to ever have a moment of feeling that she is better than someone else, simply by the circumstances of her birth. I don’t want her to ever feel that she is less, because of those same circumstances. And, most assuredly, I don’t want her to ever ignore that, because of those circumstances, she does carry a level of privilege in this world.

I want my daughter to grow with empathy.

I’m going to try very hard to make sure that this happens. I don’t know if I have the first clue how to do this, but I’m going to try. My instincts tell me that, in order to achieve this goal, I need to teach her two things. I need to teach her first to listen, and secondly to ask how she can help. Not to immediately say, “Well, this is how I would have done it”, or, worse, to make justifications to why these actions continue. To listen, and ask how to help.

I put listening first, because I truly believe that we can learn so much more about the world around us, and the people in it, if we take the time to actually listen. It’s something I will fully admit to struggling with myself, and it’s a skill that isn’t taught with anywhere near the level of seriousness that it should be. As people, we’re often waiting for our turn to talk, instead of waiting for the other person in the conversation to finish their point. It leads to misunderstandings, shattered feelings, anger, and beyond. So many problems can be countered by simply taking a step back, and actually listening to the other perspective. This doesn’t mean that listening creates understanding or agreement. I’m not looking through any rose-colored glasses here. But I do believe that listening opens the door for empathy, because getting a glimpse into the “why” someone is doing a thing can start to draw a connecting line to our own lives.

As for asking how to help, once active listening has begun, it’s easy to start offering up answers. That’s a trap, and, again, an easy one to fall into. Sometimes, no help is needed. Sometimes, and this can’t be stated strongly enough, no help is wanted. It doesn’t matter if your heart is in the right place. If someone doesn’t want help, no matter what you do to try to assist them may actually do more harm than good. Asking how to help again opens up possibilities, and allows the one who is suffering to reach out. And, again, by taking a step back, by not being the one to provide solutions without a prompt, I believe that helps create an empathic link.

Aside from these two key points, I also want to make sure that my daughter has a wealth of experiences. I want her to go to a school that isn’t gentrified. I want her to make friends with other children of all backgrounds. I want her to see the world for what it could be, but not to ignore the truth about what it is. And I hope that she will grow with a desire to make changes, even small ones, in her own life for all that she touches.

I want my daughter to live with empathy for others, but I don’t want her to be naive. I’m only hoping that I’m starting her on the right path, and that, when I make mistakes, which I know I will, that she will have the care and sensitivity to forgive me.

I want Nugget to live, laugh, love. I want her to experience joy, and, yes, to experience hardship. I want her to work for the things that are important to her, and I want her to play and revel in the times where she can simply be.

Above all else, I want my daughter to grow with empathy.

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