By Jeremy Adam Smith
I was once on the way to a wedding with two friends, Trey and Manny. We were all twenty years old.
As we roared through a little down in the Florida panhandle, we passed a lone teenage girl walking on the sidewalk.
Trey leaned out the shotgun window and hooted, "God, you have a great ass!"
Trey leaned back grinning, but both Manny and I were shocked. I didn't say anything, and I probably never would have--but Manny spoke up.
"Trey," he said, "did that make the world a better place or a worse place?"
Trey's grin widened. "Hey, I was paying her a compliment."
"Put yourself in her shoes," said Manny. He wasn't angry or self-righteous; he was just having a conversation. "You're a woman walking alone down a deserted street, and three guys in a car start shouting at you, talking about your body."
"Don't you think that'd be scary?"
Trey was quiet for awhile, and I could see the wheels turning in his head. We were now driving down the turnpike, sawgrass on both sides as far as the eye could see.
Finally Trey spoke up. "I guess I made the world worse, didn't I?" he said.
It was a difficult moment, but afterward, Trey's behavior improved markedly. Manny didn't just affect Trey; he was also confronting my pathetic silence.
I was impressed by Manny's guts, of course; it's hard to speak out against male stupidity in an all-guy environment. But I was also impressed by his Socratic approach.
Manny didn't tell Trey that he was acting like an idiot, which of course he was. Instead, Manny asked questions -- and the questions were designed to foster empathy and sense of consequence in Trey's mind.
It's an example I've tried to follow, more than ever as a father.
Empathy and compassion are skills, not fixed traits. And from birth, research has found, those skills are discouraged in boys and encouraged in girls.
Who does the encouraging and discouraging? Parents, mostly. With my wife, I've taught my son to walk, talk, use the potty -- and I've tried to ask him lots and lots of questions about how other people are feelings and what they're thinking. I do this when he's battling another boy over a truck, while we're reading stories, after he's kicked me for asking him to brush his teeth...whenever and wherever, in hopes that he'll never turn into Trey.
And of course, I struggle to foster a sense of empathy for my wife. I won't lie: This can be tough. I lose my temper. I say shit that I later regret. I'm not always fair; I don't always see things from her perspective. And every time I fail to do that, I make the world--our world, anyway--slightly worse. Worse for her, worse for my son, and, in the long run, worse for me.
"Couples relationships suffer less from a failure of words than from a failure of imaginationan ability to imagine what a partner is thinking and feeling," write researchers Phillip and Carolyn Cowan.
In an ideal world, having children together should bond a couple into an single loving unit. In reality, the Cowans found, conflict shoots up among two thirds of new parents.
The missing ingredient, they argue, is empathy. Parenthood can send men and women off on different roads of feeling and experience; many couples--at least half, to judge by the divorce rate--never find each other again.
Phil and Carolyn make a number of helpful recommendations for fostering empathy between partners, but the bottom line isn't complicated: I try my best to listen, and to take my wife's perspective before I take my own.
Perhaps that seems like small potatoes, as might so many items on my list of twenty-five ways for dads to change the world. But I'm going to keep trying anyway.
Last edited: 9/3/13
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Fifth Way for Dads to Change the World: Put yourself in other peoples shoes
By Jeremy Adam Smith
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