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“Teaching” My Son Empathy

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It started with a simple statement. One of those “throw-away” types of comments that I didn’t think would matter all that much.

“It cost me over $20 to mail Aya’s gift,” I told my nine-year-old son, Ryan.

Aya is my pen pal. She lives in Japan. We have been writing letters to each other since the fall of 1993, and three times a year we send gifts too (for Christmas, our birthdays, and our children’s birthdays).

With no hesitation, Ryan replied, “We’re lucky we could afford it. Some families can’t spend $20 at the post office.” 

Ryan went back to his art project. But the exchange lingered in my mind.

I smiled. It was one of those moments when I felt like I had earned a gold star in parenting.    

My husband and I were doing it right; Ryan was getting it. He was learning that not everyone lives like we do. And actually, we (his father and I), didn’t always live like we do now.

Ryan often asks my husband and me to tell him stories from our college years or when we lived in our first apartment. He knows that in the beginning, Paul and I didn’t own a car. He knows I spent hours each day going to college on a bus. He knows we didn’t have a lot of money, and that we used to keep track of every dollar we spent. He even knows that Paul and I once stood in the condiment aisle at the grocery store trying to determine if buying a bottle of mayonnaise would fit into our food budget.

Thankfully, our finances aren’t stretched as tightly now as they were then. We can purchase mayonnaise without worrying about the impact of this one expense on the rest of our month’s bills.

But my son also sees me cutting coupons from the paper each Sunday, and he sees me comparing prices online.

And he sees our family filling a bag with canned goods each time the post office hosts a food drive. He helps me decide what to donate to his school’s food drive. He sorts through his books, toys, and puzzles and tells me which ones he no longer wants so that we can donate them to an organization that will get them to a family who doesn’t have these things.

Parenting is a different sort of teaching than when I used to stand in a classroom and all eyes were directed on me. Now there is only one pair of eyes, but they are always on me. There is never a time when I’m “off-duty” and not teaching my son.

Empathy, though, is not a word or a concept that my husband and I ever sat down to teach our son. We worked with Ryan to help him memorize our home phone number. I held my hand over his as he practiced writing out his name in cursive. But I never sat down to specifically teach Ryan how to be empathetic. And yet, he is.

Ryan’s comment was a strong reminder to my husband and me that we are always teaching. And just like when I was teaching, sometimes the best lessons and the best demonstrations of understanding don’t happen in a predictable way. Sometimes a child surprises you with just how much they know. That’s when the tables get turned, and as parents, we have a chance to learn from our children.

Maybe it’s Ryan who should get the gold star for the lessons he teaches us?

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Wendy Kennar (481 Posts)

Wendy is a freelance writer who finds inspiration in her ten-year-old son and from her experiences from her twelve-year teaching career. Her writing has appeared in several publications and anthologies, both in print and online. She prefers sunflowers to roses and thinks chocolate is okay at any meal. You can find her at wendykennar.com.


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