Teach Your Children Empathy | Seventh Generation
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Teach Your Children Empathy

Author: the Inkslinger

Western Conifer Seed BugSomewhere in my house there's a western conifer seed bug. I know it's there because when my wife found it strolling slowly up the living room curtain, our daughter refused to let us take it outside where, she quite correctly observed, the swift crush of arctic air would mean certain death. Instead, we placed it on a houseplant and it lived to crawl another day.

My wife, a city girl for whom all bugs are satanic harbingers of disease and decay, was not at all pleased with this solution. She'd have preferred that our daughter's new friend become an insecticle. But I couldn't have been happier. My daughter had seen in this ungainly creature a life worth saving. She had peered into that sacred realm where all living things are worthy because they are alive, and therefore, just like us.

What my child had for that poor seed bug was empathy, the ability to sew a thread of connection between its fate and her own. We can argue about where such empathy comes from and how best to endow it, but one thing is certain: if we are to succeed in the great effort now underway to preserve the many natural treasures of our world, it will be because today's children grow up to become tomorrow's empathetic adults.

Too often, we live in a world of facts. The rainforest gives us oxygen. The oceans provide food. Mountains send us water. The forests give us wood. Such points are true but little more. They tell us why something should be saved but do not compel us to save it. Facts are just too sterile to bridge the gap between knowing and doing. What's missing from their cold equations is the emotional resonance that tells us we are nature and it is us and we are all in it together.

Think about it as instinctive conservation. Regulations can be changed, court orders overturned, laws broken. But emotional covenants are bulletproof because they require no evidence that whatever must be done is worth doing. Without an emotional response to the crises we face -- in other words until our hearts are in it -- we'll get nowhere.

That journey starts with empathy, and that makes empathy the one quality above all others we should seek to instill in our kids. We must send them into adulthood equipped with more than just with a factual, practical understanding of why the environment matters. To find the future we seek, we must teach them to see themselves reflected in nature's many surfaces and guide them toward the wisdom that reveals just how tightly all the countless strands of life on our fragile world are wound around our own.

photo: Janice Bovankovich


Weatherlight picture
No bugs understand another culture's property laws or recommended reproduction rates and so on. It's not their fault. If aliens drew arbitrary lines (invisible to us) and demanded we not cross them, we'd certainly question their right to do so and whether we ought to comply, even if we knew how. Same if they wanted us to have a certain number of babies per decade, or only eat certain varieties of food and not others, for reasons completely unknown to us. It certainly wouldn't be ethical on a rational level (even completely ignoring empathic on an emotional level) of them to start murdering people based on their whims. In some cases, people really do get fed up with trying to use non-lethal solutions when they're in conflict with other beings, whether those beings are humans from an unfriendly country, fleas, cabbage aphids, outdoor cats, etc. It depends on their tolerance, their empathy, the amount of damage they're taking, their tools and resources (you're more likely to let a neighbor's cat survive after digging up some potatoes if they're not your only food source for a month), their self discipline and commitment to doing the right thing when it's inconvenient, and, of course, how well their parents, their culture, and they trained themselves to respect or dehumanize (lol?) others. To some racists, it's perfectly justified to kill people of certain skin colors if they get in your way, even though it's horrible to kill other people for the same convenience. To some speciesists, it's perfectly justified to kill animals of certain types if they get in your way, even though it's horrible to kill other animals for the same convenience. I grow plants for food and if I screw up (not enough browns and not enough aeration of compost, not enough repellent sprayed, not enough mulch, wrong choice of variety for this environment, leaving host weeds near the beds, etc), resulting in "bad" (not inherently bad, not bad to themselves, just bad for my use of the plants) bugs breeding and taking over, I know it's my fault and I should do better next time. There are plenty of ways to get food without the manufacture, purchase, or murder of living, feeling animals. I had borers in my summer squash one year. The next year we grew vining varieties. I had cucumber beetles one year. I started mulching the whole bed. I had peach aphids on a pair tobacco plants that I was growing for fun and hadn't gotten around to spraying repellent on. We didn't really care about them so we cut them down and threw them in the compost; most jumped off when disturbed anyway, so we saved a leaf to vaporize :) I had some hornworms on a mass of tomato and pepper plants (and those grow huge, eat huge amounts of leaf, and are hugely cute). I put them on some potato plants (also grown for fun) out front and planned spacing better the next year. I had ants in my kitchen. I trapped and released them outside, sprayed repellent, filled in holes in the walls, and actually cleaned up food crumbs. One fall was full of mosquitoes that bit the hell out of us. I drained still water, cleared weeds, applied (cruelty free) repellent, wore thicker clothing, etc. You get the idea. These "solutions" were mainly things I should have done in the first place. The poor bugs just reminded me to quit being stupid/lazy, and in the process, they were sacrificing and risking their health, homes, and lives. I certainly didn't accuse them of being evil, or deserving to feel pain for not doing what I wanted. In that way they were no different from mildews, soil type, weather, etc. Don't think about how you want to get revenge on the sun for bothering your mitsuba, just grow them in the shade next time. The only difference is that insects (likely) have feelings and preferences, whereas the sun, fungi, etc don't care.
liverph picture
Empathy is a nice word and appropriate in many instances. Any other farmers out there, or any people who like to buy and eat vegetables like squashes, tomatoes, etc? You can come to our property and find hundreds of these cute bugs feeding away at our food and our income. I love ladybugs.
zachs_mom picture
I will never forget my first teaching job that happened to be at a school that believed strongly in teaching children to "let living things live" when we encountered insects, caterpillars, and spiders in the school and on the playground. This concept also became very important to me and imagine my horror at my next school when I saw adults actively encouraging children to kill these same creatures. I believe strongly that children begin learning empathy at a young age and teaching them to be kind to small creatures is an important part of that.
deadlycurlz05 picture
When I was a kid, I LOVED playing with bugs. Spiders, ants, beetles, lightning bugs, caterpillars and ladybugs were my favorite. I could not even think about harming one of these creatures. Now that I'm an adult, I have a different perspective: If they're in their own element (outside my house), they need to be respected (read: feared). But once they cross the threshold into MY SPACE, it's war! Flat out WAR! I don't disturb their habitat, don't disturb mine. So, I can only hope once your daughter grows up, she'll takes after you and not your wife!
earthspirit picture
What a touching story. It brought a smile to my lips because that is the way I live my life too (and I'm over 50). Neighbors and friends have a difficult time understanding why I do not feed animals, that is because I respect them too much to turn them into dependent creatures: I want them to survive in the wilderness, plus why would I give them poisoned food anyway (pesticides, chemical fertilizers etc)?. When I find bugs in the house (except cockroaches and centipedes) I take them outside too (no fear of the cold in the tropics) and place them in trees or plants. Children are born all-knowing, they are wiser than a lot of adults, we should listen to them and heed their teaching.
doriestes picture
This is a great story, we protect all creatures in our house, if one is found we catch it and let it go outside. I'm glad there are others that do this too. =)
Halli620 picture
I have high respect for bugs outdoors, and a lot less for them if they find their way inside. My mother taught us to "be nice to spiders" (I think that's the name of a children's book as well) and we trap them in a cup with cardboard on top and bring them outside, and when the occasional praying mantis has found its way in, I'm usually the one to trap that and bring it outside too. You don't really want to be too empathetic with the "bad" bugs that multiply like crazy though.
Astrotrain picture
I am glad your daughter is learning empathy and it serves as an inspiration for us all. I for one don't kill bugs just for the fun of it, in fact it kind of grosses me out to kill anything so I try to live and let live unless they're in spaces where they're really intrusive. Often in the summer flies come into the house from outside and I am always careful to try to coax them out of the screen door instead of killing them. I cringe when my daughter's grandparents at 3 years old taught her when she sees ants to "stomp 'em" just for fun ugh.
miss_mermaid picture
What a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing :-)