Spreading the Word: Empathy

Posted Dec 10 2012, 3:37 am in , , , , , , , , ,

Ever since SEND was released last August, I’ve been talking about bullying and ways to help end it. 

Last week, I had the great pleasure of addressing my day job colleagues at a Lunch & Learn event. Every month, our Parenting Network schedules a different hour for parents looking to benefit from the experiences of other parents on topics ranging from drug and alcohol abuse to filing for financial aid. December’s topic was bullying and I was honored to have been asked to present. 

Honored but also terrified. 

After all, I’m not an expert on child development. There are no impressively-lettered credentials following my name. All I have to share is a personal experience with my own son that led to a book called SEND. I didn’t want to flub this opportunity. I didn’t want to mess up.  So, I researched and queried lots of people. I compiled statistics and facts and resources. I designed a flashy PowerPoint deck. And then last Wednesday, I stood up in front of twenty-eight people with only two things: 

A photograph of each of my sons. 

I shared Rob’s frightening ordeal and then I introduced Chris. I admitted to my own shortcomings and mistakes as their mother. I shared my deepest fears as well as my biggest hope — that maybe, just maybe, there ARE things we can do, as parents, that can better prepare our kids for living in an online but disconnected world. 

Sounds like an oxymoron, yes, but it’s not. Internet technologies like social networks, smart phones, game worlds and so on have connected us in ways we couldn’t have imagined even a generation ago…but despite all this 24×7 connectivity, there’s something that’s getting lost, muted, maybe even forgotten and that’s our ability to feel and sense the emotions someone else is experiencing. Instead, our online actions insulate us from empathy and in some extreme cases, encourage just the opposite. 

Empathy is not something most children are typically good at. Have you noticed that? As parents, we’re almost continually saying things like “How would you like it if I took your toy without asking?” And, generally, our children get better at exhibiting empathy as they grow. 

But somewhere along the line, we as a society have grown indifferent to empathy. Don’t believe me? Look at the number of sites devoted to celebrity gossip and not just of the banal kind but of the voyeuristic kind — the Britney Spears breakdown, the Lohan escapades, the Sheen implosion and the recent Kristen/Rob breakup. It’s like we’ve somehow decided that as long as we’re watching online from the privacy of our homes, we’re not truly hurting anybody. But when the subject isn’t a celebrity, but a girl in the next town, we’re all shocked and horrified when that child crumbles under the public scorn and commits suicide, STILL failing to acknowledge our own parts in the tragedy. 

Parents, we have to remember that we are our children’s first teachers. When we buy them technology of any form — video game, computer, cell phone — we need to teach and constantly model appropriate use. I follow my sons’ online activities closely and frequently intervene when I object to their behavior. Recently, my oldest son tweeted my entire family’s whereabouts which I believe constituted an invitation to rob my home. Know who they’re chatting with online. When I noticed a Facebook friend on my son’s page who is older than me, I contacted her directly to ensure she understood he was a minor and being monitored. 

She disappeared. 

During last week’s Lunch & Learn session, one parent said this: “The internet is like a sewer.” 

She makes a valid point — would you permit your kids to go to a bad section of town unaccompanied? 

So why would you permit them to do so online? 


What are your thoughts about kids and the internet? How do you encourage empathy both online and in the real world? 

1 Comment


One response to “Spreading the Word: Empathy”

  1. Linda Grimes says:

    When our kids were young, we were strictly POS (“Parent Over Shoulder”) whenever they were online. The internet is no place for a kid wander around alone.

    We encouraged empathy in our children from the time they were babies. “How would you feel if that were you?” was a frequent question in our household. (Caution: this question doesn’t work with masochists. *grin*)