Monday, July 29, 2013

The Money-Empathy link

A few months ago, a study came out indicating that the more money we have, the less likely we would be empathetic. For reference you can check out the study itself or a cool video summarizing the study.


After reading the study and some really long, long articles I found this set of questions that are supposed to tell me how much money gets in the way of my own empathy practice. You can take the quiz yourself by going to this New Yorker article and skipping to the last page.

They asked me to solve a series of ethical problems...

Some of the quiz questions were easy, such as 'would you ever steal from the office' (NO). However one of the questions I spent a long time thinking about:

"After waiting in line for ten minutes to buy a coffee and walking half a mile away, you realize (coffee shop) mistakenly gave you change for a $20 bill instead for the $10 you gave them. You don't walk back to return the money. Would you do this? "

I thought about how I would feel. Perhaps it was a hot day, and I was sweaty and tired. Perhaps I was almost at work and there was a meeting starting soon. Perhaps I could just go back the next time I went to that same place, and return it later. Perhaps perhaps perhaps! So I answered that one 'maybe'. Maybe I would go back.

According to the authors of the article, the quiz concluded that "I was compassionate, when it was convenient."

Okay well as much as I don't like the idea of a quiz telling me who I am, the answer made sense to me. All of the reasons I listed for not going back and returning the money were because it wasn't 'convenient'. If I had just walked out of the coffee shop and realized the error, I would have walked right back in and fixed the error. My choice to not go back immediately may mean that someone could get in trouble for missing money. Maybe this was the third time it had happened, and now he would get fired. (So yeah, now I was feeling guilty about this hypothetical situation.)

If I were to push myself to be compassionate when it's not convenient, I'm saying that other people are just as important as I am. By not going back, I'm saying that I'm more important than the folks working in that coffee shop.


When it's easy, I am getting much better at practicing empathy. It's easy to be empathetic when I can see how we all are the same; how any one of us is not more important than any other. I can sow those seeds by choosing the harder road in situations like these. Maybe the next time I wouldn't act out of convenience. I would act to do what was right - and return the money right away.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Empathy for our children (guest post)

Parents today are very concerned about empathy, especially when it comes to their children. They not only want their children to be empathetic but they also want others to empathize with their children. This is a wonderful hope and it is one that it is a tough task these days. Reality shows are making it a business for judges to rip contestants apart right in our very homes, and a culture of non-empathy has taken center stage! We can create an opportunity for our pre-American Idol contestants to learn empathy if given the right guidance and time.   

Children are born with their own aptitudes and intelligence. Those parts of their personality that are raw talents will need support in order to grow. While some children may have strengths in math, music, language or physical skills others might come with a wonderful sense of empathy or having strong interpersonal skills. Just like natural athletes or leaders, some children really are natural empathize-rs! These children are sometimes lovingly named “old souls” and are often delight adults with their insight and maturity.

For most children empathy just takes time to develop. Its presence fluctuates as we grow and as it is tested. Empathy can appear at different times for different individuals; for some it can be from a life changing moment or experience, as a result of a series of discussions, relating to a character in a book, or travel. For others it can grow from children making connections (both good and bad) such as navigating through friendships, dating, and many types of social situations. In almost all cases it takes hindsight and careful reflection to develop empathy. 

It can help when children see their parents and caregivers showing empathy to others, reading and sharing appropriate developmental stories that exemplify empathy, or discussing a character’s actions on a television program. We can help them to think aloud about how they empathize with others, or how we struggle ourselves with empathy and to put empathy into practice through language and action.


I do caution parents not to push and set unrealistic expectations about what children are able to do at appropriate developmental times. Children are learners and they must go through developmental periods and experiences in order to work out and make sense of empathy. 
Characters like Tiny Tim in the story “A Christmas Carol” come to mind when I consider how we can perpetuate unrealistic expectations of children and empathy. Tiny Tim is physically challenged, he is poor, his father is tortured by his boss (Scrooge) and is also forced to work on Christmas Eve. Yet, Tiny Tim is not angry or sad but is able to recognize and articulate that Christmas was not about the presents but about family and being kind to each other. I have heard countless questions from parents, hoping to see this type of empathy from their young children (yes a parent wanted to know if their two year old could possess this understanding!). This type of insight about human behavior and the true meaning about what we really need for most children is not reasonable to expect. For most parents my answer is “they are not ready to achieve that level of empathy”. Parents can help to guide children to understanding empathy by allowing them to create a sense a self (this means that the “mine” stage at two years old is okay and developmentally appropriate!). As children grow, we can create opportunities and choose balanced approaches when it comes to giving and taking. Some ways to do this are to:

  1. Give children realistic choices of when their needs must be met and when it is time to give or understand the needs of others.
  1. Discuss characters in books and TV shows about how their choices affect others.
  1. Allow children to understand empathy at their level (they may not verbalize it but can show it or can draw a picture). Do not expect a child to show empathy the way an adult does.
  1. Give them opportunities to help, especially when there is a crisis situation.  Sending a card or picking out a gift to someone who might need it can be just enough to get children thinking about others. 

Parents and caregivers should know that empathetic behavior can be fleeting and then return again at another time – In essence, empathy is a practice to wield emotional power and children must be able to work with what they have got and learn to use it in their own time and in their own way.
Today’s entry is a guest post by my good friend and brilliant education consultant, Sara Lise Raff. Sara Lise consults in New York City and also writes helpful advice on her blog, Ask the Educator.

Please share your comments below, and thanks for reading.

- Janet

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

With a little help from my friends

This past weekend was a holiday weekend, and it was full of truly fantastic moments. I had lots of time with friends and family, getting outside and enjoying the weather. I even saw a beautiful rainbow, and this is how it looked just before it disappeared. (yay!)

Also, I sliced my hand with a knife. (boo!)

I was being foolish, really. I was attempting to cut a watermelon the wrong way (note, this is not quite like carrying a watermelon) and the knife slipped a bit further than I wanted it to.

I stood at the sink, water running over my hand and trying to get my head straight over what had happened and what was I going to do and how badly was I hurt. I couldn't look at it. I've heard you are supposed to put pressure on these things, so I did. There wasn't much pain but I was very woozy. I was scared, I thought I had hurt myself very badly. I didn't know - maybe I needed to go to a hospital and get stitches. Thoughts about 'what would I do about the kids' and 'oh gosh I've not done this to myself in a long time' were running through my head.

I asked for help.

Thankfully I had friends nearby, friends who knew first-aid and could offer assistance. They were there for me, and I'm so very grateful for their help.

Physically they helped by showing me how to stop the bleeding, by moving me somewhere restful and by keeping the kids happy elsewhere while I recovered. Thankfully I didn't need an emergency room.

Mentally, my friends and family helped by gathering around and saying all sorts of wonderfully supportive things. They reassured me that I was going to be fine, they told me that I didn't need to worry about anything, that they would help. They asked me how I was feeling, and listened. They held my hand and made me feel better.


As I was being cared for so well, I couldn't help but think about other times I was in pain, times when I was around folks who were 'less than helpful'.

For example, I've had people compare my situation to other people's. Have you had this happen to you? "Oh, look at that, your leg was hit by that hockey puck. It's swelling to the size of a baseball. My friend had that once, and he was in the hospital for three days. Yours doesn't look as bad." The author of this article calls the above kind of comment the trap of 'Even Worse'. I felt even more hurt when hearing these comments, because I felt like they were telling me that my feelings of hurt and pain were not valid.

When I'm hurt, I may cognitively understand that there are plenty of people in the world who are hurting more than I am. Emotionally on the other hand I need to get past my own hurt before I can recognize others' pain.

If I try to put myself into these people's shoes, I remember how it feels when someone I know is hurting. I want to help in any way I can. One thing I've tried to do, and perhaps this is the reason that people say these things, is to distract them from the pain. From the outside I think 'distraction is good'.  From the inside, I believe that the pain is sometimes worse when I try to ignore it. I have to look my pain right in the eye and say 'yes, I'm hurting' to move past it.


What kinds of things do you say to people who are hurt? What do you want to hear when you are in pain?