Lately, I've been engaging a lot with the concept of empathy. It's a word that is often overlooked, as if it is something innate, in us, therefore not worth discussing because 'we all should just understand'. What I am coming to understand, is that empathy IS in all of us, but truly accessing it is much harder to do than we realise. Perhaps we get too focused on the 'me', our world, our day to day, that we turn a blind eye or lose ability to perceive emotion in others. And even in listening to someone else's troubles, we still focus on how can I make them feel better.. what can I say.. what can I do... instead of just listening to them.
The concept of empathy, or lack thereof, was specifically apparent today with the PRU. It is more expected and accepted that children will struggle to see from another's point of view. That sharing, taking turns, and compromising do not come naturally and therefore must be learned. But we treat these things as if they are rules, that some authority has decided them and therefore we must obey. Society's “Golden Rules”. We neglect to discuss WHY they are our society's 'rules' in the first place.. and that's because of how our actions make another person or people FEEL. If we take something all for ourselves, don't allow others to have a go, or always put our needs above theirs, the other person feels BAD. They feel a negative emotion – maybe anger, sadness, disappointment. And we know WE don't like to feel that way, so it's best to behave in a way so that we don't make others feel that either. But we don't talk about this... we just have rules.. and they must be followed.
The thing is, when you work with children like those at the PRU, they don't follow rules. Particularly, they don't follow rules just purely BECAUSE IT IS A RULE. They don't want to be told what to do, to the extent that they will do the opposite of what is asked of them just to see what happens. So with these children, it is particularly important to have the discussion about WHY we do things the way we do. And this means delving into what it means to have empathy.
For example, today Henry wanted to use the saw to cut a tree branch. But he also wanted to eat a crumpet we had just toasted on the fire. I said, “Shall we wait to saw until you've finished your crumpet? Because it's hard to use the saw safely when our hand is holding a crumpet.” So Henry stuffed the remainder of his crumpet in his mouth, and muffled “I'm, remadmymm”. We got the saw ready, gloves on, and with his hand on the handle, mine on the other side we began to saw. “To me,” I said, as we had practiced many times and pulled the saw towards me. I waited for Henry to respond with “To me” and a pull towards his side with the saw, but the words didn't come out. His mouth was too full with crumpet. So I stopped and suggested again, “Why don't you finish your crumpet, first?”. He began to whine, and very impatiently started to jerk the saw, indicating he just wanted to continue. I could tell he was frustrated with me and probably felt that I was exerting power over him by forcing him to eat his crumpet before sawing as if that were some kind of 'rule'. And he whined at me, “But I'm ok! I'm ok! Can we just do it?!”. So I responded, “But I can't hear you say 'to me' so I'M not ok”.
We looked at each other, it took a second, but he seemed to understand. We both grasped hold of the saw and Henry said, “To me” as he pulled the saw. It was brief, it was simple, but I felt like something had been achieved. Henry was able to understand for that short moment that the sawing was not just about him, that I was a part of that activity, a part of his community, and I had needs and feelings too. And at that moment, he honoured that, he was empathetic, and I felt GOOD.