How to Raise a Child with Empathy
My two-year-old had just finished the morning at nursery, and his little hand grasped my finger tightly as we walked home. It was midway through his second week and he was still acclimatising; we had never previously left him with anyone besides grandparents, and even then rarely for more than an hour.
The walk was a nice one; fifteen minutes for me, maybe double that at his pace. We are fortunate enough to live near a river, so after crossing a couple of roads the journey moves along a cycle path as it winds with the river through grassy verges surrounded by trees. I always make an effort to draw his attention to any wildlife we pass, which for the most part tends to be birds. The usual garden-variety sparrows, tits and finches are common; so too are crows, jackdaws, and other larger relatives. The river offers ducks, which he loves, as well as dippers, grey-wagtails and, once, a kingfisher — none of which he ever seems able to pick out.
But there are of course smaller animals; the kind for whom the concrete path is a formidable barrier, separating one safe haven of grassy shelter from the other, and offering me a uniform background with which to render their camouflage ineffective. I don’t know my insects as well as I could, but I’m sure I could devote my life to them and still never learn the variety in my square-mile.
This was the first day the weather had invited us to walk home from ‘school’, so perhaps he was put out by yet another change because he was uncharacteristically quiet. In an effort to bring him around I tried distracting him with whatever visual aids I could find: a large leaf, a couple of blackbirds, a funny-shaped stone. Up ahead I noticed what I later learned to be a green shield bug, contrasting against the path as it trundled determinedly from one side to the other. Relishing the opportunity to engage I walked him up to it and said ‘look,’ which he did, and reacted instantly.
He killed it.
His eyes flared slightly before his tiny foot flicked out and ground it beneath his size four soles. A living creature, living no more.
This might not seem like a big deal. To even so much as notice is for many an outrageous overreaction. These animals don’t have, as his older sister asserts, mammies and daddies and babies waiting for them at home. Their tiny brains, while capable of astonishing complexity and certainly able to experience pain, are nonetheless limited and any significant degree of self-awareness is highly doubted. If it were me or the bug, I’d feel no guilt in choosing the little guy to take the metaphorical bullet — so why did I care?
“Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar.”
This quote (attributed to a Bradley Millar, about whom I can find frustratingly little) is perhaps hyperbole, certainly from the point of view of the caterpillar. But the point is that if the child makes no effort to see things from the perspective of others, if they are never encouraged to develop their empathy, then the trajectory their adult personality will take leads somewhere entirely different. Whether or not someone can put themselves in the place of a life as seemingly insignificant as that of a caterpillar is perhaps an acid test for how they’ll see, and ultimately how they’ll treat others. That guy in the restaurant who ignores or talks down to the waitress? He didn’t learn this lesson. The voter who disregards minorities, the impoverished and the environment when making their decision? They didn’t either.
Years ago, when waiting for the school bus, a childhood friend used to make obstacle courses for ants by spitting on them and seeing how much they could swim through. As gross as it was this worryingly sadistic behaviour didn’t see him grow up to be a killer, but his voting habits and position on migrants suggests he admires the quality in others.
But a developing mind already has so much to deal with, so it isn’t surprising that so many of us don’t waste time on the seemingly trivial. It had been a big week for my son: learning new faces, human faces, assessing if they can be trusted. His nursery is a bilingual setting offering new experiences he had no words for in any language, so he was likely questioning his communication skills. He was fighting valiantly in an ongoing struggle against societal pressure to be potty trained. These are just some of the challenges visible from the outside. And on that day I took him by the hand and led him on yet another new journey. He was probably frustrated, confused, maybe even a little frightened. He was then confronted with a bizarre creature with six legs moving surprisingly quickly toward him. Our brains have evolved to flag certain shapes or movements that were dangerous to our ancestors, which is one of the reasons we often react adversely to things that logically pose no threat to us. These flickering memories, vestigial ghosts of the mind, include a myriad of potential perils from big cats to creepy crawlies. From an evolutionary perspective perhaps it was a wise child that squashed everything they failed to understand, in case it had potential to cause harm (no two-year-old could ever have been certain). In some instances such behaviour appears to manifest as an urge. But evolution acts ultimately to ensure the continued survival of our species, and the very real threats we face today are in direct opposition to such basal impulses.
I have to admit, I didn’t react with all this in mind. ‘No, you’ve killed it!’ was enough for him to realise the magnitude of his actions; he burst into tears. I immediately consoled him; told him it may have escaped into the grass as he spun around searching for it. This wasn’t a lesson he needed to learn right now. But he would need to learn it.
My daughter, at the mature age of four, seemed more able to grasp the issue without the need for murderous incident. I remember a time when she was eight months old and overtired at a restaurant. I took her outside to distract her, but the blandness of the concrete garden offered little inspiration until I spotted an ant on a bench. I kneeled down to point it out and her eyes immediately fixed on the strange little object. It was tiny, nothing like a person or a cat or a dog, yet somehow it was capable of moving autonomously. She followed it intently, enjoying it disappearing then suddenly reappearing from the gaps in the wood. Since then she hasn’t been able to pass a single ant or bee or grasshopper without devoting at least five minutes to studying or handling it. She has progressed to chief spider-catcher in our house, and at school she has appointed herself protector of the garden’s woodlice (a younger girl has a penchant for stomping on them). So I enlisted her help in teaching her brother.
I sent her out to find creepy crawlies and made him watch as she treated them with deference, always gentle and in awe, until he understood the privilege of being able to handle them himself. Helpfully, and with some degree of irony, the nursery began showing the children Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar the following week (he told me that caterpillars really, really like eating).
He now looks out for insects and the like by his own volition, imitating his sister’s fascination. He isn’t quite there yet: the other day an ant too small to crawl onto his finger succumbed to his attempted love: before I could intervene I was witnessing a scaled down re-enactment of Lennie petting the puppy in Of Mice and Men. ‘It’s okay’, he assured me, ‘’I wiped it away’.
Before long he will be old enough to understand that you cannot wipe away inconvenient truths, and, I hope, be well on the way to becoming the sort of person we need more of in the world. When the survival of the entire planet is dependent on the ability of this generation and the next to understand the needs of the living world, it is no exaggeration to say this lesson is critical. There are world leaders today that were clearly never taught it, and there are millions suffering the repercussions. It isn’t an easy lesson to teach, but we have to persevere. The ability to care about lives so easily considered less than their own is perhaps the most important lesson a child will learn.
Whether the caterpillar is capable of gratitude or not.