Stories from my personal journey learning about and delivering Nature-rooted programs across three different countries
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There is one boy at the PRU who we are finding particularly difficult. His name is Connor. And it's not just us who find Connor hard to be around, it's the other kids too. They don't like him and either try their best to avoid him or enjoy provoking him to get a reaction. I have never witnessed any true signs of Connor having a friendship with any of the others. It all sounds very sad, but the reason is really quite blunt. Connor is mean. A real nasty piece of work. He goes out of his way to make others feel bad and almost seems to get enjoyment out of making others feel inferior and powerless. He's a bully.
We know Connor's background story, we know he's in care and has lived a hard life, and so we know the reasons behind why he behaves the way he does. But the question is, what do we do about it? How do we interact with Connor in a positive way? According to our behaviour training, utilising empathy is the best method. Rather than just demanding someone stop doing something, it is much more effective to describe to them how it makes you feel (that it feels bad!). They then have the power to choose to stop because they can decide they don't want to make you feel that way. I utilise this method all the time with the PRU and it has proven very effective (see previous blog post!). But Connor is different. His access to empathy is very limited and quite frankly that scares me.
When prompted with a question like, “When you pushed Oliver into the mud, it made him feel very upset. How does that make you feel?”, Connor would respond “Good..” with a smirk. Whether this is just defiance or a sincere lack of empathy, I am not entirely sure yet. But it does worry me.. and it certainly makes the conversation more difficult. This is the usual pattern of dialogue with Connor about his behaviour (if he doesn't walk away first). And yet I persist... perhaps out of stubbornness or maybe it's desperation, as I lack any knowledge of a better method!
But I had a glimpse, just a brief moment, of 'success' today that gave me a teeny bit of hope. Connor and the boys were practicing fire lighting with fire strikers and cotton wool. Connor had learned the skill and practiced quite a bit at it the week before so he was good with the strikers. A couple of the other boys had not tried it last week and this was their first go. Needless to say, their coordination and skill level were low. But with encouragement, they were persisting. Connor was sat right next to the boys and proceeded to describe very loudly how great he was at it, how easy it was, and that he could get it on the first go. He would get the attention of the boys to “show them how to do it” and then rub it in how "easy it was" when the cotton wool lit. I could see that Connor's words were aggravating the other boys' frustration and discouragement at not being able to light the wool. And to be honest, it annoyed me too! So I decided to address it. Connor was beside me so I just turned to him and said, “Connor, when I first tried firelighting I wasn't very good at it and I felt really frustrated when I couldn't light it. It took me a very long time to finally get it and it makes me feel bad when you say that it's really easy”. It was a fleeting attempt... but to my surprise,
Connor looked right at me and said, “Oh.. sorry” and stopped.
Now, I am not claiming in any way to be a hero in this story, changing lives in seconds and defending the human race from bullies.. because about 15 minutes later Connor was strutting around shouting about how he was the "pro" at firelighting, the best at it, etc. etc... My impact is immeasurable and probably very insignificant in the grand scheme of Connor's life, but my brief interaction with him gave me just a small glimmer of hope that empathy is in Connor, he has the capacity, it's there, and I hope with all my heart that he chooses to try to access it.
Through Connor, I learned today that lack of empathy is not just to the detriment of others, it is to the detriment of ourselves. Someone's inability to empathise with others prevents them from forming true and lasting relationships. Empathy is not just about our ability to understand and accept others, it is much more about our ability to understand and accept OURSELVES and it is this that gives us the capacity to welcome others into our lives, to build a community. And this, really, is more for our OWN benefit than anyone else's.