Mother and Empathy

Mother and Me

Mother and Empathy was my personal contribution to the Grace Louise Brandner Crouch memorial service on Sunday, May 18, 2014.

I remember an early conversation with Mother. I am standing on the stool and washing my hands in the utility room sink. It’s too tall for me because I am only four.

Mother with tears in her eyes – “You told Wilsie that it was time for her to go home and you wanted her to leave. Did you see that she was angry and that she left after you said that? I felt very sad when you told her to go home. I don’t want you to tell her to go home again.”

Me in 4-year old language – “I didn’t mean to make her mad. I just wanted her to leave so you could play with me.”

Mother – “Even when you don’t mean to make someone mad, it’s not OK to tell them to go home. Wilsie is my friend and I want her to come and have coffee with me because I want to have time with my friends.”

I remembered this conversation mainly because Mother was so distressed about Wilsie’s reaction to my request. I had no idea that she was teaching me basic social skills and empathy.

I remember another empathy lesson about creatures. I had just entered the kitchen from outdoors, probably with a guilty look on my face.

Mother – “Have you been chucking apples at my chickens?”

Me – “Um, yes but I was throwing rotten apples and I wasn’t able to hit the chickens from across the yard.”

Mother – “I don’t want you to pester my chickens. It’s not right to hurt creatures just to entertain yourself. If you want to throw rotten apples, throw them at a tree trunk, or something that you can’t hurt.”

I thought that Mother might have a point there. I got that it was selfish to harass the birds for the fun of it. It was the earnest feeling in her message that made it memorable for me. I couldn’t believe that she really cared that much about the chickens.

A few years later, I wanted to impress my neighbors Susan and Sandy. While our parents were square dancing I decided to entertain them by taking apart and putting together mother’s table radio. I did well on the taking apart, but failed miserably on repair. The next day Mother and I had a conversation.

Mother – “Did you do something to my radio? It no longer plays.”

Me – “I thought you didn’t want that radio because I don’t hear you play it — so I was showing Susan and Sandy how to take it apart and put it back together.”

Mother – “That radio was my special radio. It’s the only radio that plays my favorite station in Roseburg. I play it when you are gone to school to keep myself company. It’s not OK to just take someone else’s things and take them apart — even if you think they don’t want them anymore. When I saw that my radio was broken I was so upset that I cried. I want you to promise me that you won’t use things that belong to others without their permission.”

I felt very very guilty about ruining her radio. What was I thinking? I don’t know how to assemble a radio. Anything beyond plugging a vacuum tube into the socket is beyond me.

Mother’s way of interacting helped me to respect the feelings and property of others much more efficiently than other parenting tactics such as lecturing, shaming and punishing.

Mother provided empathy training about the big-picture in human events as well. Throughout our primary school years, Mother routinely took time to read to us at bed time. The most memorable book she read was “Brave Men” by World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle. Pyle was a well known author who covered the War in Europe from the perspective of the ordinary soldier, sailor, and marine.

Pyle told stories from the point of view of men who did the work and the suffering of combat. Through this reading, I began to grasp the terrible cost of war. I don’t know if Mother intended to teach pacifism, but her readings about the experience of war helped me understand the rigors of wartime and left an abiding conviction that war creates far more problems than it solves.