Imagine you’re sitting on a bus. You’re lost in thought about some aspect of your daily life—the groceries on your list, whether to book that flight, why your mother is upset with you—anything. Next to you sits a young child who is bald and wearing a bandana. Her skin is blanched, there are rings under her eyes and she is clearly very ill, struggling against cancer and undergoing chemotherapy. She’s holding a book bag decorated with brightly-colored cartoon characters. Stop for a moment, think of this girl, and ask yourself how you feel. Each of us can look at a child suffering through the pains of cancer and its treatment, and the empathy comes easily.
Now, still sitting in your seat on the bus, you turn and see a boy who looks about eleven years old. He has wild-looking red hair and he’s significantly overweight. He’s sitting next to a woman who, by the way he keeps reaching into her purse and grabbing at things, must be his mother. “Stop it, Michael,” she says, her face red with embarrassment as she glances around the bus, then at you. “We’ll be stopping to eat in a minute.” Her voice is strained with urgency, but the boy does not stop grabbing at her purse. “I want some crackers! Where are they? You always have some.” The tug of war between mother and son continues, with everyone else on the bus stiff with anticipation of the inevitable explosion. And it comes as if on cue. “I hate you!” he screams, kicking the pole where an old woman is leaning. “I want another family.” The boy yanks her purse away and throws it down the aisle. The mother’s face slides downward into a familiar expression of defeat. She’s clearly been here with her son many times before. She calmly tells him to go get her purse, keeping her voice low—a practiced strategy for stifling the blaze of his anger. “No! Go get it yourself!” You finally can’t take any more, and you look away out the window. Your bus stop cannot come fast enough. You’re already running late. You close your eyes to escape the scene erupting around you.
Ask yourself how you feel. What do you want to say to this child? To this mother? How much caring do they deserve?
What is the difference between the needs of children like the bandana-wearing kids at a cancer center, and ones with significant emotional problems who throw tantrums and shower disrespect on their parents? I believe the difference exists primarily in perception. Kids fighting cancer are “empathy easy,” whereas the kids I work with as a psychologist—the ones who swear, kick, punch, refuse and fail—are “empathy hard.”
The assumptions we make about “naughty” kids
In the years I’ve spent working with such “naughty” kids, I’ve found myself tempted toward certain assumptions. I’ve caught myself, after watching a particularly dramatic display of child naughtiness during my clinical work—the dropping of “F-bombs” or the erecting of middle fingers in my direction—entertaining words such as “attention-seeking,” “manipulative,” “oppositional,” or perhaps a simple “he or she is being a pain in the ass.” Sometimes I question such responses bubbling up from the depths of my frustration with a particular kid’s behavior. What I realize is that I’m falling prey to universal, yet reversible, limitations of human perception. We are all blocked by our point of view as observers of others’ behavior.
And these same perceptual limitations get in the way of our parenting as well. The “bad” we see in our children’s behavior can sometimes coagulate at the very center of our hearts.
Studies have repeatedly revealed a mental distortion called “correspondence bias,” which is common to everyone when they make judgments about the source of others’ actions. Basically, when looking at others, unless there are clear external, environmental causes leaving the person “blameless” (such as the young child with cancer who did nothing to create her situation), we tend to assume (incorrectly) that people’s behavior is the inevitable result of their own internal traits. The person who cuts us off in traffic is undeniably a “jerk.” The colleague who walks away from our office in a huff has “an attitude problem.” They chose and therefore caused this behavior to result. If we’re watching someone display “bad” behavior, and there is no clear outside explanation, it is tempting for the bystander to say the person’s actions result from some distasteful, personal attributes (for example, laziness). It is easy to see then how our empathy falters. Our caring withers when we (often incorrectly) assume people’s negative experiences were “deserved.” They simply had it coming.
We all are prone to such errors in perception. The essence of correspondence bias is the observer’s incorrect view of the actor’s control over circumstances. In doing so, we ignore the crucial influence of situational forces on behavior. Think of the last time you were late for work or school. How would you feel if everyone who noticed your tardiness assumed you were late as a result of some defect in your character? Welcome to the world of “unruly” and “oppositional” children at the therapeutic school where I work. Say hello to the homeless guy standing in the median of the highway on your way to work. Take a good look at the morbidly obese woman in front of you in the grocery store checkout line who is reaching for that calorie-laden candy bar. And look long and hard at your own children when they’ve done all the things that hit buttons and deflate dreams. These people are all empathy “hard,” but do they really deserve to be? It’s a good opportunity to clean the distortive smudges from our perceptual glasses. As Tara Healey from Harvard Pilgrim writes, “it’s about checking how we’re seeing before we try to change what we’re seeing.”
You’re back on the bus. The girl wearing the bandana is sitting across from you. No mental stretch is necessary to understand the pangs you feel for her when you notice the half moons under her eyes, when you wonder how much longer she’ll be carrying her pink book bag to school. The empathy comes easily and deservedly.
And now, a seat next to you opens up. The mother whose son just pitched her purse down the center aisle comes to sit next to you. She’s looking to get a minute or so of respite. Her son is still grumbling about being hungry at the other end of the bus. “Hate you,” he yells. You hear the mother sigh, watch her grip the purse she’s just recovered from up near the driver’s seat. She fills her lap with the purse. Perhaps she learned long ago to keep that space occupied so little boys with restless, aggressive limbs would not try to sit there.
Instead of allowing your mind to lock in on judgments of “brattiness” and “bad mothering,” you close your eyes and step back in your mind’s eye. You consider the context. You take off your distorting lenses. Inhale, exhale and you find yourself feeling a touch of the weight of this mother’s experience, and you notice a curiosity flickering as to all the things—some controllable, some not—leading this boy to such a stuck place. For a moment, you’ve forgotten how late you are, and you are worrying less about what others might think if you do anything.
“Rough day,” you say to the mother.
A small, appreciative smile cracks her hastily applied makeup.
“You have no idea.”
Pause and practice
In your next (likely not too distant) moment of parental frustration, go beyond the advice to “count to ten” or “take deep breaths” before responding. For sure, do these things, but do something in addition while you’re counting and breathing—Ask yourself: What might be hiding beneath my child’s “difficult” actions? What might be lying there vulnerable and unattended beneath my own? Ask these the next time you catch yourself in the act of reacting. Tell your reflexive, knee-jerk mind to wait a moment—you’ve got some breathing and inquiring to do.