Widening the Circles of Empathy

All ages

A good case can be made that acceptance and appreciation of difference is the central value of humanistic ethics. Although this is explored in greater detail in "Finding and Creating Community" chapter 8, here are a few ways for families to accentuate and celebrate difference.

Who's in your boat? In our social relationships, empathy is based on the feeling that we have something in common with others—the awareness that "We're in the same boat."Yet cultural awareness usually classifies us into a few groups such as gender, race, or religion—groups that are often assumed to be in conflict. Sometime, when the issue comes up naturally—your child heard an ethnic slur used at school, for example, or your newspaper reports a bigoted statement made by a politician—play this game:

Have your whole family sit down with pencil and paper, set a timer, and take 5 minutes for each of you to list every group you can think of that you belong to. When the 5 minutes are up, compare lists and make suggestions to each other about how to get a nice, long list—say, thirty items. They can be trivial ("people whose favorite color is purple") or serious ("people with learning disabilities"), voluntary ("favorite sport is hockey") or involuntary ("left-handed"). The game prepares you to talk about how complicated people are, and the many ways in which each of us has something in common with everyone else.20

What's in a word? Exploring other languages is fun, and teaches appreciation of cultural diversity, partly because different languages often reflect different ways of thought. If you and/or your parenting partner speak more than one language, speak two languages at home, at least part of the time. Otherwise, get some bilingual dictionaries or use the Internet to learn five ways to say important words and phrases like "please," "thank you," "far away," "silly," or anything else the kids choose (have a "word for the day," a "word for the week," theme words, such as sports terminology or birds' names—whatever your family enjoys).

Out and about. Visit ethnic neighborhoods. Go on holidays like Chinese New Year or Cinco de Mayo, but also at any time of year visit neighborhood cultural centers, grocery stores, and so forth, surrounding yourself with sounds and signs in another language—and maybe bringing home a new food to try. (If you live in a very homogeneous community, save this idea for a vacation.)

Understand the other side. It's always tempting to demonize the opposition, especially when their behavior is obnoxious. But we do need to see their humanity, even if we continue to disagree with their point of view. It's worth watching the movie Jesus Camp together to understand the influences that make evangelicals act the way they do—especially if your kids know others who are religiously self-righteous. Watch for the scene in which the kids at the camp are being told that if they ever think "dirty" thoughts, they are "hypocrites," and discuss why the kids are crying.

It's equally important, of course, to point out that the people in Jesus Camp don't represent all religious believers, many of whom have values that give them much more in common with the nonreligious than with their more extreme coreligionists. For example, you could visit websites of pro-choice Catholics who speak up against their church's hierarchy, or talk about how segments of many religious denominations support gay rights, and how others refuse to condemn those outside their faiths as "evil."

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