Thursday, February 26, 2009

How do you bring up a child to have a heart?

It is one of those conundrums of parenthood.

Nourishing the body could not get any easier. Nutritional science and availability of healthful food have both improved by leaps and bounds over the last few years, taking the guesswork out of figuring out what is good or bad for growing bodies. Yes, it requires effort and more than a little creativity to ensure that children lead healthy lives. But the process lends itself to a certain level of objectivity.

Nourishing the spirit is quite another matter. The Gordian Knot has only become tighter and more complicated. If anyone has the code to unraveling it, they are not telling.

Evidence of apathy is pervasive. Extreme and bone-chilling apathy. There was the story of the man lying on the street after being struck by a truck on a busy street. Many people witnessed the accident, but it took more than a few minutes before someone thought to call the police or go to him to help. There was a recent incident in DC when a man was struck by two other men in the middle of the afternoon. The man lay on the footpath for a good 20 minutes before a shopkeeper called the police. A newspaper reporter who viewed the security tapes from a nearby store and counted more than a 100 people walking right past the comatose man. Then there was the story of a woman who lay sprawled on the floor of a busy emergency room at a NY City hospital for an entire day. No one bothered to see if she was all right. By the time a hospital worker came and poked her with her shoe, the woman was dead.

The people who walked by and walked around and ignored the suffering were ordinary people going about their business. It's hard to imagine that every single one of them was cruel or wantonly decided to let people die when they could have helped. You don't want to think that people are capable of such indifference. You hope and pray that your child is neither the perpetrator nor the victim of this utter disregard for a fellow human being.

But what do you say to your children to mould them into caring, compassionate human beings? When do you say it? How do you say it? Will whatever you say have any impact? There is no easy, objective way to arrive at or measure any of this.

This doesn't stop one from trying, of course. The mind constantly churns, spinning new approaches to achieving the ideal. I have found myself bouncing between a few.

There is the 'showing by example' approach - if children see the parent showing compassion, empathy or generosity, the hope is that they will adopt those values and do the same. Then there is the 'talk till you are blue in the face' approach - the shortcomings are obvious: children tend to zone out; concepts like generosity, fairness, compassion and helpfulness are not easy to talk about in the abstract. There is also the 'teachable moment' approach combined with the Socratic method where one uses a recent real-life event (preferably in the child's life) or a story in a book to draw out lessons by asking the child what he or she might have done in that situation - it appears to be the most effective approach, one that holds the child's interest, but of course, one requiring a lot of patience and forbearance on the part of the parent. Finally there is the 'praise every compassionate, kind act and build it up' approach - positive reinforcement, in other words.

Sometimes, when I either don't have the patience or none of these techniques appears to be able to do the trick, I resort to shorthand. "C," I say, "you've got to be a gentleman. That's the only way to be in this life." I have the satisfaction of having tried to convey what is important. Occasionally it leads to further conversation about what it means in that context, other times it trails off into nothing.

There is no denying that we as a society make this issue of how we relate to our fellow human beings very complicated. We teach our children to strive to be the best. They are trained to defeat, to celebrate winning. We look at the poor sod who lost with pity. When they lose, they are told not to worry, that they did their best, even as they are coached to derive lessons from the loss and plot their way back to winning.

Yes, as adults, we rationalize. Teaching to win does not necessarily mean begetting a hard heart. We teach our kids to win but we also teach them to do it fairly, to be generous to the vanquished.

Somewhere in this cacophony of mixed messages and crossed signals you wish fervently that their instinct to do good by their fellow human being, however meager it may be, is not pulverized into nothingness.

Which is why when I received an e-mail from C's swimming coach with this message, "I find it encouraging that it IS possible to develop a very competitive will and a good heart at the same time. These things are not at all mutually exclusive," I eagerly scanned the rest of the e-mail.

It contained an incredible, heart-warming story. I could use a lot more adjectives to describe it for you, but would much rather have you read it for yourself. This is a story about baseball, but lack of knowledge of the game should pose no impediment. But before going any further, if you are anything like me - easily given to tears - I would urge you to have plenty of tissues at hand.

At a fundraising dinner for a school that serves children with learning disabilities, the father of one of the students delivered a speech that would never be forgotten by all who attended. After extolling the school and its dedicated staff, he offered a question:

"When not interfered with by outside influences, everything nature does, is done with perfection. Yet my son, Shay, cannot learn things as other children do. He cannot understand things as other children do. Where is the natural order of things in my son?"

The audience was stilled by the query.

The father continued. "I believe that when a child like Shay, who was mentally and physically disabled comes into the world, an opportunity to realize true human nature presents itself, and it comes in the way other people treat that child."

Then he told the following story:

Shay and I had walked past a park where some boys Shay knew were playing baseball. Shay asked, "Do you think they'll let me play?" I knew that most of the boys would not want someone like Shay on their team, but as a father I also understood that if my son were allowed to play, it would give him a much-needed sense of belonging and some confidence to be accepted by others in spite of his handicaps.

I approached one of the boys on the field and asked (not expecting much) if Shay could play. The boy looked around for guidance and said, "We're losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we'll try to put him in to bat in the ninth inning."

Shay struggled over to the team's bench and, with a broad smile, put on a team shirt. I watched with a small tear in my eye and warmth in my heart. The boys saw my joy at my son being accepted. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shay's team scored a few runs but was still behind by three.

In the top of the ninth inning, Shay put on a glove and played in the right field. Even though no hits came his way, he was obviously ecstatic just to be in the game and on the field, grinning from ear to ear as I waved to him from the stands. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shay's team scored again.

Now, with two outs and the bases loaded, the potential winning run was on base and Shay was scheduled to be next at bat.

At this juncture, do they let Shay bat and give away their chance to win the game? Surprisingly, Shay was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit was all but impossible because Shay didn't even know how to hold the bat properly, much less connect with the ball.

However, as Shay stepped up to the plate, the pitcher, recognizing that the other team was putting winning aside for this moment in Shay's life, moved in a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shay could at least make contact. The first pitch came and Shay swung clumsily and missed. The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly towards Shay. As the pitch came in, Shay swung at the ball and hit a slow ground ball right back to the pitcher.

The game would now be over. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could have easily thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shay would have been out and that would have been the end of the game. Instead, the pitcher threw the ball right over the first baseman's head, out of reach of all team mates.

Everyone from the stands and both teams started yelling, 'Shay, run to first! Run to first!' Never in his life had Shay ever run that far, but he made it to first base. He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled.

Everyone yelled, "Run to second, run to second!" Catching his breath, Shay awkwardly ran towards second, gleaming and struggling to make it to the base. By the time Shay rounded towards second base, the right fielder had the ball. The smallest guy on their team who now had his first chance to be the hero for his team. He could have thrown the ball to the second-baseman for the tag, but he understood the pitcher's intentions so he, too, intentionally threw the ball high and far over the third-baseman's head.

Shay ran toward third base deliriously as the runners ahead of him circled the bases toward home. All were screaming, "Shay, Shay, Shay, all the way Shay!"

Shay reached third base because the opposing shortstop ran to help him by turning him in the direction of third base, and shouted, "Run to third! Shay, run to third!"

As Shay rounded third, the boys from both teams, and the spectators, were on their feet screaming, "Shay, run home! Run home!" Shay ran to home, stepped on the plate, and was cheered as the hero who hit the grand slam and won the game for his team.

"That day," said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, "the boys from both teams helped bring a piece of true love and humanity into this world."

Shay didn't make it to another summer. He died that winter, having never forgotten being the hero and making me so happy, and coming home and seeing his Mother tearfully embrace her little hero of the day!


Tharini said...

Oh my God! Tears!!

This is true chicken soup or the soul. And you have raised an awesome and deeply mystifying question. All those little approaches you mentioned would all be little things we can do for sure...but I think compassion ultimately arrises from one's heart and if it is awakened in that moment, it can find expression.

However I do think there is one way of making our children aware of the world they live in and its misfortunes on exposing them to volunteer work and social service. Right from an early age, because when you are faced with another's struggle, there is something in you that is always awakened, which sometimes words and modelling cannot accomplish beyond a point.

Sri said...

Hi Sujatha

Nice post..i have read this story some years back in one of the Chicken Soup books...brought tears to my eyes again...


Tharini said...

So to answer your do you raise a child to have a putting him in a situation where his own heart murmers inside and rouses him to attention..

Nino's Mum said...

I've read this so many times, and it still makes me cry.
I've come to believe that there is a very thin line between compassion and pity, and pity can be emotionally crippling for both the giver and receiver. Compassion is much tougher to teach, that of extending a helping hand and a heart open to possibilities. Nurture obviously is crucial to making a child compassionate, and that can be done not just by involving them in social work. Even in everyday stuff - with neighbours, in the supermarket billing line, in school. And at home. With their own parents and grand parents. Compassion need not focus only on those who appear to most need it.

Choxbox said...

okay now i have to explain to an inquisitive 3 year old why my eyes are all wet.

all of what you say and then hope like hell.

Sands said...

I hacve read this quite a few times and I still cry everytime I read it like it is my first read each time. I struggle with this each day with the kids and the OH & I try to tell ourselves that this is something we can teach them only by practising it ourselves & alos pray that they have it in them to turn out to be compassionate human beings.

Sujatha Bagal said...

T, thank you! That's a valuable suggestion. C is a class rep on the student council and they are always coming up with ideas to help the local community here, plotting ways to rustle up money or food that they can give away. That's a great way for them to think about those that don't have much and get involved in helping them. In my mind, though, volunteering is an organized activity. What I'd really like to see the kids have is that spontaneous feeling of, "I must help this person." I've seen sparks of it in C (wrote about it in the Neighborliness post a few days ago), but am at a loss as to how to nurture it and protect it other than to shower praise. (Thank you to all the blog aunties who commented on that post - I could see C's delight when he read your comments.) :)

@ Sri, didn't know this was such a popular story. This was the first time I'd read it.

@ NM, that's the thing - the line b/w compassion and pity! Thanks for pointing that out.

@ Chox, hope like hell, indeed!

@ Sands, hopefully half the battle is recognizing that we want to inculcate certain traits in our children. You're already there and the very best to you for the other half of the battle. :)

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, sujatha! I think it's one of those things kids imbibe unconsciously by watching their parents' actions. It's like how much ever hard I scream at C for losing her pencils and keeping her study table disorganized, it doesn't seem to work:(

DotThoughts said...

what a heart wrenching story. I don't have the answers, but I think, giving opportunities to "do good" would be a start, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Stories like this always make me cry. Sob.

Interesting question though- how DOES one bring up their child to have heart? Now that my child is here this question has taken on new meaning.

Sujatha Bagal said...

@ NM, makes you wonder what else they are imbibing. :(

@ Dottie, this whole parenting thing is a live experiement, anyway. So will try anything and that sounds good. But do you think I'll stop worrying?

@ Siri, yes I am looking at you and I see myself 8 years ago. Discovering some new issue/delight/worry/joy every single day. Thank you for sharing your journey on your blog.

Roshni said...

what a wonderful story!
I truly beleive that children by themselves are compassionate, but they also need to be guided, as your are doing with your child. Otherwise, they just grow up looking at all the apathy and cruelty around and slowly get desensitized to others' pain

Sujatha Bagal said...

Roshni, that's a good point - a combination of nature and nurture!

Anonymous said...

Sujatha, beautiful post!Heartrending indeed!
The way i try to teach my kid to be empathetic is being one myself. If we are watching TV and someone's in distress, i tell her why it's important to feel for that person and what we could have done to help ease their pain. I don't think she can comprehend that level of empathy as of yet, but i am sure somewhere in her heart the lesson's being learnt. I wish she becomes a good human being first and everything else later.

Anonymous said...

I meant we see someone in distress on the TV :)

Sujatha Bagal said...

Lak, that's a great measure of good parenting:

"I wish she becomes a good human being first and everything else later."

Anonymous said...

Nice thoughts Tharini I am very pleased with it and I don't want to add anything to it.
John Assam