Raising An Empathetic ChildNovember 5, 2013
As a parent one of my goals is that I am trying to raise empathetic children. It is an incredibly important life skill, and one that our broader culture does not always model well. I want my sons to grow up seeing the strength in truly understanding and appreciating the emotions of other people. Thankfully, I have a spouse who recognizes empathy as a vital character building block. But how exactly does one go about raising an empathetic child in this day and age? What are the outside institutions that will help reinforce my family’s values? I am fortunate to be a camp director at a values-driven overnight camp community, where a major focus of our program is helping children to learn to be empathetic people. I am able to see the incredible good that an intentional summer camp community does in crafting a young person’s character.
A video began circulating last week about a recent middle school football game in Michigan. Within about an hour of it being posted about a half a dozen of our camp parents had forwarded a link to it. After watching it I understood why it so resonated with them. It’s an incredibly powerful example of how young people, given the right guidance and opportunities for growth, can truly understand what it means to care for others in a selfless way.
CBS News’ Scott Pelley put it well when he called it “the football play of the month”. Teammates on the Olivett Michigan Eagles quietly conspired to include one of their friends in a touchdown play. They didn’t tell their coach, or even their friend Keith (who was born with significant developmental challenges). To the surprise of all who were watching their game, they ended a successful run on the 1-yard line so that they could bring Keith in for the next play. In doing so they gave him what will likely be his only chance to ever score a touch down in an organized football game.
What made this video so powerful for me was that this became a story about love and acceptance, and not just tolerance. Keith is not their mascot or their sideline buddy: he is their friend. The team was prompted to set up this incredible life changing moment for Keith not because of some adult intervention, not because they tolerated or pitied him, but because they genuinely like him. They love him and have taken the time to understand why he is important. He sits with them at lunch, and he walks with them to school. They recognize that he is quirky, but also deserving of love and friendship. And because of this level of acceptance these boys on the Olivett Middle School Football team also seem to understand how profoundly their actions have changed their own lives.
The incredibly named wide receiver Justice Miller has my favorite quote of the piece. When asked by a reporter why this moment impacted him so deeply he replied “because he’s never been cool or popular before…and he went from pretty much a nobody to making everyone’s day”. This young man of 13 or 14 seems to grasp just how fortunate he is to be able bodied, athletic and popular, and how easily he was able to share his own social capital with someone else – and in doing so only increase his self-worth.
As adults we have the power to create a generation of young people of character. As parents we can show our children videos like this, and make conversations about being a person of character a regular part of our lives. And at summer camp, amidst all of the fun and friendship making, we have an incredible opportunity to teach our young people about the power of being caring, empathetic and accepting of others.
At Camps Kenwood & Evergreen we pause at the end of each week and come together for our Friday night services. We offer a traditional Jewish service (with candle lighting and basic prayers) and a Non-Denominational Ecumenical service (based around a single discussion topic). At both services we read a sermon that tries to highlight our collective values, and then discuss it as a community. It hopefully serves as a guiding point for character and social action amongst our campers and counselors during the next 7 days. Last summer Scott and I delivered a sermon called “Perfection At The Plate” that was very similar to both the experience and the message of what took place at the Olivett Middle School Football game. We invite you to read the sermon and let us know what you think of it.
At Camps Kenwood & Evergreen we regularly use the refrain Image a Place…, and in doing so we imagine many things. We imagine a place where campers learn to be better athletes and artists, and we imagine a place where our children forge some of the most important friendships of their lives. But we also imagine a place where the members of our community learn to be better people, and that includes helping them to become more empathetic and understanding.
Camps Kenwood & Evergreen in a values-driven overnight camp in NH. We invite you to learn more about incredible experience.