I have two young boys. My husband and I are trying to raise them to be good, kind people. I bet Brock Turner’s parents thought they were doing — had done — the same.
But reading Turner’s father’s letter asking the judge who sentenced his son to six months for sexual assault for leniency, it makes one wonder: We’re raising our kids, but are our eyes wide open? What are we raising them for?
We’re not parenting for empathy, according to Michele Borba, author of the new book “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.”
“We need to push the pause button and say, ‘What kind of kid do I really want to raise?’ ” Borba says. “It’s over very quickly; there’s no rewind button.”
Dan Turner’s letter to the judge about his son is an attempt to make others feel sad about what Brock Turner is going through. (I mean, he can’t eat steak. He’s being locked away for “20 minutes of action.”) His father even blamed this “event” on the younger Turner drinking too much because the older swimmers at school were. In other words, the sexual assault wasn’t his fault. Even the drinking wasn’t his fault.
But the fact is this was a young man violating a young woman he didn’t know. Behind a dumpster. He still shows no empathy, and after reading the letter his father wrote, you might get an idea why.
So, how can parents use this horror as a lesson? Maybe they need to start by making sure they aren’t making excuses for their kids. Like the time that little Joe hit the neighbor kid and his dad said: “Well, he was provoked. Also, he had a lot of candy today. We need to stop feeding him so much sugar.” Or when Jane cheated on a test and mom said: “Well, that teacher just can’t teach. Otherwise, she would have aced it. She’s so smart.” Did it grow into a time when he skipped school and got drunk, and mom and dad said boys will be boys? Or did she shun a friend from the group to the point where the girl was depressed? What are we doing in our lives to raise kids who are lacking in empathy, and always blaming the other guy for their missteps?
And in a question his parents never, ever expected would be in The Washington Post about their Olympics-aspiring champion Stanford swimmer: How can we make sure to not raise the next Brock Turner?
“We define success as so narrow, as a GPA,” Borba says. “We’re vaporizing the other part of them, the humanness.”
Empathy can be taught, and should be, she says. So many of us think kids are born with it or learn to be that way simply by living. Sure, some are more wired for empathy than others. But parents need to teach empathy intentionally. “When your child walks in the door, how often do you say ‘What caring thing did you do today?’ Look at your photos. You’re good with science fair trophies photos, but what shows caring?”
I’ve written a bit about the Harvard Making Caring Common project, and the studies it has been doing about kids and kindness. In one study, about 80 percent of the youth interviewed said their parents were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others. The interviewees were also three times more likely to agree that “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”
What is this doing to our kids? What are they actually learning about themselves, or about love, kindness and even us?
Borba has some advice on how to awaken the empathy that lies dormant in our children, and perhaps ourselves.
We need to set aside “sacred unplugged time,” when we reclaim our conversations, Borba advises. And stop with all the activities, the pressure. Our kids aren’t learning the actual life skills they, and we, need them to. “During summertime, get back to mud, sand and dirt. Our children are so structured boosting their Ivy League potential, they’re losing [that skill of] just getting along with one another. Kids feel lonely but they are connected online. But they’re not really connecting with a human being.” Read books. No, really. Spend time with “Charlotte’s Web” or “Dumbo.” Anything that shows empathy, accountability, love for another.
And just be kind, parents. To yourselves, to others, because your little ones are watching. So congrats to you all if they are off to an Ivy League school with a big old scholarship. But as we can see here, and in other cases, if that’s all there is, that’s really … nothing.