Recently here in St. Louis, the mayor witnessed an attack that kids call “The Knockout King” game. For those that don’t know, basically a teen (usually encouraged by a group of friends) walks up to a completely unsuspecting adult (often much older and less physically able than the teen) and takes a haymaker swing at them. Our mayor, Francis Slay, helped the man who was attacked get help, and he has since had some harsh words for these kids.
In interviews with local media, the kids who will admit to having knowledge of these attacks will claim “boredom” as their number one reason such things happen. Many sociologists and child psychologists will chime in to agree with that, and they’ll speak of the need to create more recreational opportunities for the youth of our city. I suppose it’s an “idle hands” response to the problem: if the kids are busy at other “positive” things, they won’t have time to get into this kind of trouble.
I’m here to say that’s a load of garbage, and I’m pleased to say Mayor Slay is with me. He called these attacks what they are: felonious assaults that are almost sociopathic. Right you are, Mr. Mayor, but let me just add a consideration for all parents, not just those who would seem to be at risk of raising kids that would get involved in such a thing. What sociopaths lack is empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine how they would react in a certain situation. Let me give you a quick story about a teen without such empathy. On the day after the September 11th attacks, I wanted to hear what my students were thinking, but I was off first period. So I went into a colleague’s room and sat in on the discussion for the period. After a lot of the typical responses, a sullen boy in the back was called on by the teacher. “I don’t care. I didn’t know any of the people that were killed. It wasn’t my family.” Certainly I was shocked, not so much that he felt that way, but that he felt it was socially acceptable to say that out loud. It struck me as not just insensitive, but incredibly stupid, as if he and his family wouldn’t have been attacked that day, even if they’d been on the 100th floor of the trade center. To not understand that all Americans were targets that day was dense beyond my belief.
More interesting for us today, though, is his absolute lack of empathy. Everything I’ve read about empathy suggests that it is not a natural human emotion, and that we must be taught to have it. Raising my own children has confirmed this unfortunate truth. While lots of schools now have “character education” programs, their effectiveness is under much scholarly debate. I’ve taught two of them in my teaching days, and I find them to be useless, like teaching kids to get ready for college by studying the mascots. That leaves it to us, the parents. We must be the ones to teach our children this crucial requirement for civilization.
How can we do this, teach our kids to care for others as they care about themselves? There’s no prescription, but I would advise all of us to spend time with our kids talking about how our actions and attitudes affect those around us. Did your child get sent to the office today? Ask him how the teacher or the principal probably felt during these situations. Did you two walk or drive past a beggar on the street? Ask her what state her life would have to be in to be willing to beg like that. Do they watch of lot superhero-type movies and TV shows, with clear-cut good and evil? Get them to watch the occasional drama with nuanced characters, and then discuss their reaction to it. The big idea here is that we don’t have to wait until our child does something that seems thoughtless or cruel to try to teach them empathy; in fact, when we have to punish them for such behavior, it’s probably not the best time to teach. Empathy is something we can teach all the time, just by what’s around us constantly in our daily lives.