It’s easy to conclude that people generally suck. Don’t they, though? There’s the driver who cut you off, the lady who appears out of nowhere to swipe the last free sample off the tray when you’ve been waiting patiently in line, the “friend” who’s forgotten your birthday three years in a row. I get why we’d assume others just aren’t trying.
Photo: Leah Kelley
But this, of course, is a damaging outlook to take. It closes us off from connection, and makes us cranky and bitter. As a parent, I want to teach my daughter to view others with compassion over judgement – a tough skill to learn, but one that will serve her every day.
Sabina Nawaz, writing for Harvard Business Review, shares an activity that I like a lot. She and her kids play what they call Multiple Meanings, a simple people-watching game that promotes empathy. Here’s how it works:
We take turns creating stories from observations of people and events on trips to and from school. For example, if we see a man walking rapidly on the footpath with tattooed arms and a sleeveless vest, we might make up a story that he’s late for work because his car broke down, so he’s walking fast to get help. Maybe he owns a tattoo parlor across the bridge and is a walking advertisement for his business. Or maybe he’s meeting someone in the park and is running late.
Our children then use the skill when they’re upset about something at home or at school. This is especially helpful when my sons argue and come to me for mediation. To reduce the heat in the conflict, I ask: “What other meanings can you make about why your brother borrowed your Lego aeroplane?” The goal is to be able to calm themselves down and be more empathetic, so they approach someone else with curiosity instead of judgement.
We often teach kids to mind their own business. But what if we didn’t? What if we taught them to wonder about people, even those who might hurt them? What if we reminded them that everyone is fighting a hard battle? What if will pushed them to challenge their assumptions and give others the benefit of the doubt – or even better, ask them about their lives?
In Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong, she asks her husband if he believes people are doing the best they can. His response was this: “I don’t know. I really don’t. All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.” That is exactly it.
With your kids, help them use their natural love for stories to come up with their own narratives for the toddler throwing a tantrum in the supermarket, the man who’s getting upset at the bank, or the bully in the book they’re reading. In the end, the story they’re changing will be their own.