Hmm… This one is complicated. One of my readers who never had children
asked me about teaching kids manners, and whether I thought it was also
possible to teach empathy. The first
part of the question is easy. Most
parents try to teach their kids to say “please” and “thank you” from an early
age and how to behave in various settings (assuming that the parents themselves
were taught). Of course some kids will
learn manners faster than others, just as some learn to read and do
multiplication tables at an earlier age. By adulthood, even the most boorish
brats know how to hold a knife and fork and say “thank you,” even if they don’t
always remember to write a note. In my
view, learning to be polite requires memorizing rules and then paying attention
to the situations that call for them. I
believe most kids can master basic good manners because— sooner or later— they learn
that they will not succeed without them. Manners are a learned skill and can be used
for personal gain without much feeling. Empathy is a different story
and psychopaths may well have impeccable manners; how else could they attract
their victims? These extreme personality
types are completely lacking in empathy, but good manners can substitute for
feelings or masquerade as compassion.
Proper etiquette can be the key to helping people in different cultures, religions, and
belief systems negotiate and compromise instead of killing each other.
have twins with diametrically different special needs, they may (or may not) be
comparable to neurotypical children when it comes to learning manners and
demonstrating empathy. At age three
when asked for a kiss, Max immediately responded: “Say please!” He clearly understood the power—comedic and
otherwise—of that word and how to apply it.
At age 22, he will always allow a woman to enter an elevator first, offer her
a seat on the bus, or open a door. He’s
very attuned to the opposite sex…. On the other hand, his table manners still
leave a lot to be desired. His elbows
often end up on the table, and he doesn’t always hold his fork correctly.
Sometimes he gets up from the table without asking to be excused, or walks away
from the person talking to him in the middle of a sentence. My husband calls these excursions “walk
abouts” and finds them disrespectful. How would you feel if someone walked away from
you in the middle of a sentence?
Max’s walk-abouts —along with
shoveling his food and his leaning on the table—are part of his ADHD, examples
of the impulsivity, inattention and restlessness that make these kids
challenging to live with. Max knows the
rules, but he isn’t always “paying attention” when they need to be applied.
positive side, Max has demonstrated enormous empathy, almost to the point of
over-sensitivity. (Perhaps this is connected
to his hypochondria?) As a five year
old, Max presented me with a picture of two dinosaurs colored in bright magic
markers to cheer me up when I was crying.
At age nine, he started to cry after catching a female trout that
dropped hundreds of eggs when he pulled her out of the water Now, as a young adult, he’s always sensitive
and generous (toward his friends, if not his parents.)
course, Sarah is entirely different in terms of both manners and empathy. Despite being on the autistic spectrum, Sarah
has impeccable table manners. She wields her knife and fork perfectly and is
extremely polite and charming to waiters and other adults we encounter. Unlike
Max, Sarah never leaves a table without asking to be excused. She might interrupt—something Max never
does—but she would never walk away from someone speaking to her. As a teenager, Sarah always came home in
time for her curfew and called if she was delayed. Sarah understood—in a way her brother didn’t—that
we’d be worried to death if she didn’t call. This is an example of empathy and/or consideration.
so-called experts say people on the autistic spectrum don’t have empathy,
because they are unable to understand a perspective outside of their own. Lately, there’s a new theory that people with
ASDs suffer from being overly sensitive and are self-involved or disconnected
to protect themselves from pain. Both of
these theories probably have merit, but neither one can explain my daughter. Sarah will
never have her brother’s empathy because she doesn’t understand more complex
social situations, like the idea that not everyone wants a hug or company if
they’re sad. But Sarah is every bit as
kind as Max. When she was in
kindergarten and a classmate cut his finger or felt sad, she would be the first
one to kiss him and say she hoped he'd feel better soon. However, the warm, affectionate approach
that always worked for Sarah in kindergarten can sometimes backfire in college
when a depressed classmate simply wants to be left alone.
wired to understand emotional subtlety, even her own. Unlike most people who have daily ups and
downs, Sarah is unrelentingly cheerful and upbeat— until she unravels into one
of her periodic explosions. My daughter struggles
with social skills and conversation, but, rather than withdraw into her own
world, she stays busy with a few friends who share her interests. Like Sarah, these young adults are polite and
kind. But they don’t talk about gun
control or the plight of women in Arab countries.
In the end, I guess
most kids can learn enough etiquette to function in their own culture, but
empathy may be more elusive. If parents
show empathy toward a child, hopefully that child will naturally develop
similar feelings— feelings that go beyond superficial consideration to true
emotional attunement. For centuries,
religion has tried to teach children to be generous and charitable, while
schools—especially today—make community service a requirement to graduate.
Yet because of technology and the information
age, children bully each other more cruelly now than ever before. Sadly, the victims of these bullies are more
likely to have physical or learning differences. As a mother of special needs twins, my heart
goes out to those victims and their parents whose children are suffering more
than mine did. Max and Sarah mostly grew
up when insults and humiliation were still painful but temporary upsets at
school and had not yet morphed into social ruin in cyberspace.
To all of the
computer geeks and wizards of technology, I beg you to have some compassion for
all of the children whose parents are buying your products and making you
billionaire masters of the universe.
Apply your genius to helping parents teach empathy along with good
Labels: ADHD, autism, bullying, college, empathy, etiquette, family, hypochondria, manners, parenting, twins