I’ll take snakes on a plane. Snakes are quiet.
Last Saturday, I woke up at 4 a.m. to fly to an event across the country. “I’ll sleep on the plane,” I told myself. And no, I wasn’t being naive.
I came prepared: I had my “asshole-canceling headphones” (big Bose over-the-ear “cans”), industrial-grade earplugs to wear underneath, and an iPhone with selections of white noise.
The cute blonde 3-year-old seated in front of me wasn’t a screamer. She was a talker — in a tone and volume appropriate for auditioning for the lead in “Annie.”
I figured she would quiet down after takeoff. She did not. And, sadly, even $300 worth of Bose technology was no match for this kid’s pipes. After about 20 sleep-free, “SUN’LL COME OUT TOMORROW!!” minutes into the flight, I leaned forward and whispered to the child’s mother, “Excuse me, could you please ask your little girl to be a little quieter?”
“No,” the woman said.
Lucky me, seated behind another proud purveyor of “go-right-ahead!” mommying. And in case you’re wondering, I didn’t ring the call button to “tattle” on her. Those uniformed men and women walking the plane are flight attendants, not nursery school dispute resolution experts. Also, a mother who sees no reason to actually, you know, parent, is unlikely to start because a lady with a pair of wings pinned to her outfit tells her she should.
We experience more and more of this these days—parents who apparently see any correction of their children’s behavior as a form of abuse. We have “parents” like this in my neighborhood. Throughout the day, through closed windows, you can hear this horrible high-pitched screaming. No, nobody’s taken up urban goat slaughter. Those are the impromptu audio stylings of their 3-year-old going underparented.
Today’s parents have their priorities. There’s no age that’s too young to start prepping the little nipper for Harvard — to the point where pregnant women should soon be hiring tutors to speak Chinese to their womb.
However, too few parents seem to be preparing their children to be successful as human beings. An essential element of this is instilling empathy. The word derives from the German word einfühlung—“feeling into”—and it’s at the root of good manners. It involves caring about how another person is feeling and being motivated to help them feel better, which often requires compromising on your own needs and desires. You teach a child empathy in a number of ways:
- Show empathy to your child: Be responsive to their needs, but appropriately responsive. This doesn’t mean letting coddling them or letting them rule the world like a tiny Stalin, but showing that you care about their feelings and being there for them when they need comforting.
- Model empathy: Let your kids see you being kind to others. Emphasize that being kind is important and explain why — including talking about how good it feels to help people in need.
- Fire up your kids’ imagination: Mention a person—someone you and your children see in public or one of your child’s classmate’s who’s having a difficult time—and ask your child how they think that person feels. Listen, but add your insights afterward.
- Suggest empathy exercises: Ask your children to identify people in their world who could use a little kindness. Suggest they think of small actions they can take to make things better, such as making a card or drawing for an elderly neighbor, and encourage them to follow through. If your child has enough social capital that it won’t hurt them, discuss their possibly reaching out and being inclusive of the class underdog, and ask ways they might do that.
- Discuss appropriate boundaries: Teach your children not to be damagingly altruistic, neglecting their own needs in favor of others’. Discuss how and when it’s okay and even important to say no.
It’s by teaching your kids to balance self-interest with others’ interests that you give them the best shot in life. It really doesn’t take much. For example, that mom on the plane could have both modeled empathy and asked her daughter to show it: “You know, sweetie, how you get cranky when you haven’t had your nap? Many people had to wake up really early for this flight and might want to sleep, so let’s pretend we’re mice and use our quietest voices.”
Beyond allowing a few exhausted grownups some shut-eye, getting in the habit of living as if other people matter makes you more likely to be employed by them, to be liked and respected by them, and even to be loved by them. Sure, it’s good to be king. But it’s ultimately far more satisfying to be kind.
Amy Alkon is the author of Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck (St. Martin’s Griffin).