The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, November 25, 2020 3:40 pm

Building empathy can start early with children

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

My husband and I recently made a rare pandemic shopping trip together to tackle a long Christmas list that included Legos, action figures and a Nerf gun – and we made sure to bring along our 5-year-old son.

Like many children in Fort Wayne, our kindergartner lives a comfortable life that he's too young to fully appreciate.

We regularly tell him how lucky he is. Along with having the basics – a well-stocked pantry and refrigerator, a dresser stuffed with clothes and a roof overhead – we live in a house cluttered with toys and children's books.

I doubt the message ever sinks in.

He doesn't understand that the school lunch he barely eats is a meal other kids depend on, or that not every mom has the money to make a Starbucks cake pop a routine treat.

He doesn't understand people struggled before the coronavirus pandemic, let alone that people are struggling even more now.

As the temperatures dip, he's fought me about wearing heavier coats to school, not knowing some children might get a warm coat for winter only because a school employee discreetly places it in their locker.

I don't fault him for it. I certainly wasn't aware of such problems at his age.

But there's no harm trying to expose him to the world's troubles and build his well of empathy, so that's what my husband and I did.

We had children to shop for through various adopt-a-family programs, and we explained our mission well before stepping inside Target.

We told him we needed him to help select toys for the boy and girl on our list, and we tried to address questions we thought he might have, like why we were shopping for strangers.

We heard surprisingly few "gimmes" as we steered the cart through the aisles.

He helped choose a Nerf gun for a 9-year-old boy and a Pete the Kitty book for a 5-year-old girl. (He wasn't much help when it came to selecting clothes. I suppose his interest can only go so far.)

We left Target with a long receipt and a cartful of shopping bags.

I don't know if our son knows how much we spent that night, but the total is beside the point. I hope his knack for remembering odd moments kicked in and his long-term memory bank recorded this shopping spree so many can't afford.

With any luck, when we again tell him how blessed he is, he will someday say, "I know."

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