A lack of empathy is painfully evident in our homes, neighborhoods, public places, and even churches. Go anywhere, interact in relationships, or observe your own self-talk, and you will observe that this is the case.
Many times I witness it in the way parents treat their children or children treat each other. Here are some examples:
Have you ever been a stressed, frustrated parent with a child out in public who isn't moving fast enough or doing things just right? Who may be upset and crying or arguing with you? Have you scolded, yelled at, or grabbed your child or reacted out of your own frustration and embarrassment?
Recently I was in a store where there are small carts for children to push. Two sisters each had one - about ages 7 and 4. The 4-year old was behind her older sister and bumped her leg with her cart. The older sister started crying and the mother went to comfort her. The 4-year old looked confused as though she didn't even know what she had done.
The father came up from behind the youngest girl, took the cart from her with no explanation, in an angry way and headed to put it back in frustration. The little girl was so confused and started screaming and throwing a tantrum.
I would ask, what did this teach this little girl? Eventually the father took the younger daughter out of the store in anger, while she was still screaming, and the mother continued shopping with the older daughter.
This situation did not have to turn out this way. If the father had asked the little girl what had happened, seen that she hadn't meant to hurt her sister and explained to her how to be more careful with her cart, she might have learned something, and she may have had another chance to push her cart safely. The father could have shown empathy by saying, "I understand that you didn't mean to bump your sister. And we have to be careful too. I'd like to give you another chance pushing your cart safely and if you have trouble we'll put it away for today and try another day."
The problem was not the little girl or what she had done. The problem was the father who was showing a lack of empathy for his daughter and reacting in his own anger and frustration.
Have you ever shown anger, frustration, or disappointment toward a child for getting hurt? Or told the child he's not hurt and is just fine?
For example - a 3 year old may have been told not to run near a pool. Of course the child forgets, because learning takes repetition and experience.
So when the child runs and falls, how often do we as parents yell or very sternly say, "I told you not to run by the pool!!!" Our child is in pain and likely confused, and we don't even seem to care. We only see what we perceive as disobedience and "stupidity" on his part.
Inadvertently we teach our children: Mommy or Daddy doesn't love me when I make a mistake or do something wrong. I am bad. I need to behave differently to avoid my parent's anger, frustration, and disappointment in me, not because it's the right or safe thing to do. We invalidate them and show a lack of empathy for their pain.(See the wonderful resource Real Love in Parenting by Dr. Greg Baer to learn more about the messages we send our children.)
Have you noticed the amount of bullying going on in schools and neighborhoods these days, and even between siblings? This is a major problem in children and teens as they treat others with the lack of empathy and compassion with which they have been treated.
Children who are different are often ostracized and made fun of, being sworn at, spoken to with contempt, and physically, mentally and emotionally abused by their peers.
As a college student I went out to eat often with my friends. Once we were ordering in the drive-thru and the person on the intercom sounded so funny (i.e. different). I am ashamed to say we were laughing and making fun of him in the car.
Surely he heard us. Surely he heard many do the same thing or worse. For as we pulled up to the window and he politely asked for the amount, we noticed he was a person with some challenges who was doing his best to succeed in society, working at a job that likely brought him a lot of ridicule for the way he talked. He wasn't rude in return, but simply gave us our food and thanked us for our business. As we pulled away, I was ashamed and disappointed in myself. How could I have been so cruel?
This experience actually changed my life. Empathy and sympathy were invoked in me and since then I have been much more compassionate and loving to those with challenges. Yet I hope you will realize that challenges or not, we all need empathy, from the youngest newborn to the oldest member of society.
Have you ever seen a child acting out in public and wondered why their parents "let" them act that way? Lack of empathy would lead to this conclusion.
Empathy might ask, "I wonder if that child has autism or asperger's syndrome?"
"I wonder if that child is hungry, thirsty, or tired and the parent is simply overwhelmed?"
"I wonder if that child is a highly sensitive person and the parent simply doesn't understand or know what to do?"
Please continue to to read about a lack of empathy in relationships with adults.