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Some kids are born with empathy. They just seem to naturally put themselves in others’ shoes. “How would I feel if I were Wilbur?” they wonder while watching Charlotte’s Web, and then they sob inconsolably for 2 whole days. Other kids, if you don’t teach them empathy, watch out. They’ll grow up to be sociopaths. I’ve had many interactions with kids that go something like this:
ME: “Why did you poke him in the eye, unfold all the laundry, and/or decapitate these zinnias?
KID: “Because I wanted to.”
My 4-year-old is somewhere in the middle of the cry-for-days-because-the-pig-is-sad/murder-your- sibling-just-because spectrum. Her empathetic abilities are still emerging, and being shaped by the feedback she gets.
She will go to great lengths to comfort and protect her little brother, for example, but then she also doesn’t understand why we should not let our dog eat the neighbor’s cat.
“Oh no, we shouldn’t go over there,” I said to her one afternoon. “The neighbor’s cat is out and Aubrey will follow us over there and eat it.”
She ignored me completely and went over to the neighbor’s yard. Aubrey followed her and tried hard to eat the cat, which narrowly escaped. Merrill came back over, looking shaken.
I’m glad my kid understands that people should only feed their own cats to their dog, and not borrow someone else’s.
“He tried to eat the cat, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” said Merrill.
“It would have been terrible if Aubrey had eaten that cat, wouldn’t it have?” Merrill nodded. “Why would it have been terrible?”
Merrill thought for a long time and said, “Because it’s not our cat.”
I’m glad my kid understands that people should only feed their own cats to their dog, and not borrow someone else’s. At least I’ve taught her something. But what about the cat? Doesn’t she care about it?
That’s why I was so happy when Merrill poured a whole packet of soap flakes (which, in her defense, did look sort of like fish food) into the fish tank and killed all our fish. She ‘fessed up and cried and cried and cried. I asked her why she was so upset. I was ready for her to say, “Because you’re mad at me.”
But she didn’t. She said, “I’m crying because I feel so bad for those fish! Those poor fish in the soap!” She sobbed and sobbed over the poor fish in the soap, telling them she was sorry and would never, ever put anything in the fish tank again because now she understood just how high the stakes really were. I reassured her that the fish probably went fast and we eventually moved on.
It was fascinating and sort of spooky to watch my daughter move up another rung on the developmental ladder. And so, so heartening. Killing 8 fish was a small price to pay.
Robin Whetstone is a writer.