Q. How does one handle the adolescent
15 or 16 years old--who shows no compassion, gratitude or appreciation for his or her peers? Although this same teen-ager can occasionally be warm and charming, there seems to be no recognition that indifference and coldness cause pain.
Are consciences first made at home and reinforced by religious training? What happens if there is no religious training? Does an adolescent outgrow this characteristic? What can an observer do?
A. Children are not heartless by nature, whether boys or girls. They are direct and candid, which can make them seem cruel, and they look at life through their own perspective, but they truly care about others. Little children may battle over the possession of a toy, but if a child cries for some other reason, you'll see his playmates show concern and try to comfort him (or at the least, start crying themselves). A young child puts himself first, but others run a near second, so long as his own turf is untrammeled.
Children do tease as they get older, and say fairly rotten things sometimes--often focusing on a particular classmate or teacher--but this diminishes greatly after the sixth grade, especially among girls. There is still a cutting edge, but there is also remorse for the things that are said and done, and afterwards there is usually more compassion for their targets than for themselves.
When you see a teen-ager who seems unable to give to others, you're looking at someone so unsure, so fearful, so hurt that he (or she) has no kindness to spare. He is too unhappy to be very charming very often.
To reach that point, he has gone through many corrections, many put-downs, many failures. They may not have been too much for some children, but they were more than this particular child could handle. Self-esteem is built on success, not criticism.
Religious training may have fortified this young person, but he still would have needed someone to bolster his ego. Otherwise it could have been more of the same, for most enduring religions use some guilt, shame and humiliation to fix the conscience in place. This is not to demean religion; these are the same levers used by most bosses--and parents--and for the same reason: to keep their flocks in line.
Generation after generation discovers that it takes a small measure of the negative to make the positive come to life, the way it takes rain to make us appreciate the sunshine.
It's the overdose that overwhelms the unprotected child. If intolerance is the custom at home, the most gentle criticisms or warnings in school or religion become further attacks on his self-esteem. He doesn't have the perspective to keep his own image in balance.
Empathy is a matter of understanding, not of conscience. A child can't understand someone else until he feels understood. When a child thinks he is under psychological attack he defends himself at anyone's expense; he has no sympathy to spare.
Although you see yourself as an observer, this child needs a friend. As an educator once said, "The child most in need of love is the unlovable child."
You show your love and friendship when you talk with him as you would talk with someone your own age. Discuss the book you're reading, the television show you saw. Ask who he's going to back in the next presidential election. Tell him about your fears. When you let him know that you have hurts, he can infer that other people hurt too. It's better to encourage empathy indirectly than to tell him when he should empathize.
You also can invite this child to dinner on a fairly regular basis--but have him help you cook the meals. The child who invests in the work will think better of the results and of himself, particularly if he masters a specialty in which to take extra pride.
Hire him to paint or garden or market for you, but only if you're willing to teach him the skill. Competence does more to instill self-esteem than anything else.
You also will need to expect--and demand--first-class work. By the mid-teens a child is capable of excellence; he should have the satisfaction it brings. The child who is afraid or depressed will need more encouragement and training to reach this level, but he still deserves the same high standards you would give to the neighborhood whiz. This is the way you subtly say that he is as good as the best.
He will need more praise than most teen-agers--although few teen-agers ever get enough--and this should be given honestly and freely, without mentioning any mistakes made along the way. For once the work has been accepted, it is just that: acceptable. Besides, he knows his mistakes all too well.
This teen-ager also needs socializing, but he'll find it easier if he only has to deal with one other teen-ager at a time--and preferably of the opposite sex. See what you can arrange; there's nothing like romance to teach compassion. It's as if the ego stretches its umbrella to cover two instead of one. In time it can include his whole world.
Questions may be sent to Parents' Almanac, Style Plus, The Washington Post.