Last Christmas our son Calvin came with us to his sibling’s school music program. The church was lit with bright lights; Calvin (very visually impaired) was thrilled that he could see something. He spent most of the time craning his neck backwards and flinging his arms in excitement.
A few benches over a kid started laughing, “Why is he acting so weird? He keeps looking backwards.” Calvin’s big sister Sophie was next to him and felt defensive. “He’s not weird, he can hardly see anything so I bet he’s excited about the lights,” she responded. “What if you couldn’t see anything, wouldn’t you be excited too if you saw light?” His face registered understanding, “Yeah, probably.”
Empathy was learned by a 2-second experience of imagining rather than a short lecture of how one should respond.
This has been a huge part of our family’s interaction with Calvin. Guilting our kids into spending time with Calvin or forcing them to pretend it’s fun to play when he doesn’t respond will never produce genuine joy in their relationships. Instead we have used imagination to lay the foundation for an atmosphere of empathy in our home.
Empathy is gained when we listen to or imagine another’s experiences and gain understanding. My goal was to get my kids to see bits of life from Calvin’s perspective. We started by exploring what it would be like to have a visual impairment.
We read Follow My Leader, a story about a boy who gets too close to a firecracker and becomes blind. They soaked up the story of Jimmy as he learned how to read Braille and navigate streets. They fell in love with guide dogs (we watched a documentary and a story about a guide dog) and began begging me for one (that was an unplanned result).
They spent hours outside blindfolded with sticks, listening for sounds, feeling for bumps and trying to imagine what it must have been like for Jimmy. Anytime they see Braille, they have to touch it and when they notice a person that is blind walking with a pole they automatically have admiration. They know a little bit how hard it is.
We read stories about Hellen Keller, a biography of Ann Sullivan and watched clips of Hellen Keller. We followed it up by The Miracle Worker, a film of the story. It motivated me to read more too. I read a fascinating book about the history of education for the blind, stories of the blind in India and the resiliency to live without sight. Although it was not appropriate for kids, I relayed some of the stories at the supper table.
What are ways you could foster empathy between your kids? Not pity, but true caring and understanding? Start small and watch the culture of your home change! In the end it’s not just creating understanding for a sibling with special needs. It’s teaching kids to look past the exterior, the circumstances and challenges, and planting the seeds of desire to be a positive part of another’s life. It’s learning to obey God’s command to “love your neighbor” in your very own home.
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