I was invited to write a series on character traits for Renaissance Secondary School.
It was a difficult, after school, hangry (hungry/ angry) discussion about showing up for “optional” baseball practice. My boy is not into optional. Crammed into my office, he is sitting on an easy chair facing me and I am writing a blog post about empathy. In this moment we are worlds apart. He is seeking connection and I am working. He is wriggling out of baseball and I am questioning his perseverance. He is asking for more choices and I am using old school control tactics to push him towards my preferable outcome: optional baseball practice.
Then I stop. It hits me. Empathy isn’t a skill we are born with; it’s a character trait that is developed. Empathy does not come easy; it requires attention and effort. Empathy is an ability that is grown. I have to consciously consider what is about to happen, because I have not been practicing empathy tonight. We are sitting here solving a problem. He needs some acknowledgement and acceptance of the choice he’s making. He wants to be heard. I’m not connecting. I’m not trying. I’m not even present.
I turn towards him and look him in the eye. I listen to the language he’s using and know it comes from the heart. His communication skills are leaps and bounds ahead of his father and I. He is schooling me on empathy. He tells me I need to practice my tone of voice and facial features when I react. Sometimes they are not kind. He lets me know that when my face is looking at a screen it’s hard to know I’m listening. With my full attention he lets me know that he wants to be treated the same way he treats others. I stare into his eyes and nod. Our differences melt away. We have found common ground. This is empathy. This is our “we are not alone” moment.
I was a proud parent, but not for the reasons one might think. As I was banging my head on the keyboard trying to find words powerful enough to convey how Renaissance teaches empathy, my son was demonstrating it. He was using design principle to problem solve. I scoured research on empathy from Harvard to Stanford, and all the while, the data was sitting at my desk. This is Renaissance. An educational system that puts so much effort into character development, that my son literally brought the words home for me. As I listened, I could picture him a team builder in his career. I could see him comforting his friends. I imagined the way he would tackle his first disagreement with a spouse. At Renaissance we use the Outward Bound philosophy set forth by Kurt Hahn, “We are crew, not passengers.” Each part essential to the whole; empathetic behavior personified. I am proud that Renaissance is not only a partner in developing my child’s intellect, but also his character.