Friday, March 9, 2012

Surprised by empathy

I think most parents are like me in that as soon as we send our daughters off to school, we know on some level that the day will come when we’re drying her tears and trying to come up with answers about why kids sometimes don’t always treat each other too nicely. No matter how closely we read Reviving Ophelia or Queen Bees and Wannabes, or attend anti-bullying sessions sponsored by the PTA or listen to the counsel of friends with older kids, we wonder how we’ll help her navigate this particular age-old maze.

I don’t mean to sound sexist; boys have friendship issues too, but in my household, that part has been easy. Tim is something of an introvert; he gets along with lots of kids (being a good athlete always helps, as you’re always in demand for a pick-up game at recess) but sticks with a small number of good friends with whom he’s been close for years.

For Holly, it’s more typically complicated, and I consider myself lucky that it’s no more than every few weeks that she comes home on the verge of tears with a friendship issue to vent. I’m definitely no expert, but I do my best at those times: I listen to her account of what happened (which usually boils down to who was excluded from what by whom), offer perspective, reassure her that this too shall pass, and sometimes try to subtly clue her in as to which friends tend to get mixed up in these problems more often than others.

So earlier this week when she said she wanted to tell me about a problem, I automatically pictured the fairly large circle of girls she normally socializes with at school. I wondered which girl had snubbed Holly or said something that was open to misinterpretation this time around. But what I heard instead surprised me. With tears rolling down her cheeks, Holly told me a story about being excluded in the cafeteria – except it didn’t involve her at all. It was a boy in the class who was having trouble fitting in with the other boys whose attention he apparently coveted.

Accustomed to discussing girl problems with Holly, I was a little bit perplexed. I suggested that she could invite the boy to eat lunch with her and her friends if the other boys were excluding him, but she retorted that my solution was not what he wanted. “I understand that he wants to be with the boys and not the girls, but wouldn’t being with the girls be better than nothing?” I asked. But this is fourth grade, the height of the boy-girl voluntary segregation phase. It was unthinkable to her that eating lunch with the girls might be a reasonable second choice for this boy, and my attempt to suggest that having the girls desire his company might in fact make this boy more impressive to the other boys in the long run made even less sense to her.

I wasn’t much help, but what struck me was the depth of her empathy. She almost never cries when she confides to me about her own friendship problems, but she was crying over the fate of a boy being left out. “They’re just so wrong to think they’re better than him!” she wailed in describing the other boys’ behavior.

Her frustration and anguish made me sad, but her empathy surprised me and gave me a twinge of pride. Holly is almost always cheerful and pleasant, but I don’t necessarily think of her as empathetic. I felt sorry that she was experiencing so much sadness over the schoolroom situation, and I felt concerned for the boy whom she perceived as being victimized. My hope is that this situation will pass. But underneath that feeling is a fundamental belief that her empathy for those in difficult situations will last a lifetime, and that almost makes the tears worth it, this time around.

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