Innocence Stolen

I hope that the seeds we plant today will take root and that the power to hurt won’t be abused by my son or my daughter.

In the wake of the Steubenville rape, questions undoubtedly arise about how we can, as a people, prevent such a vicious tragedy from happening again. Blogs have abounded to confront such subjects as the media coverage, the focus on the victimhood of the perpetrators and the lack of empathy for the sixteen year-old victim. While we argue about whether to focus our attention on how women can prevent rape and how whistle-blowers need to be commended instead of targeted, one question haunts me: can empathy be taught?

No mother thinks she is raising a rapist. And while I can watch from the bleachers and judge these other parents, I know that I do so from the comfort of distance, as my children are still elementary school small, and these issues are years away from the reality I might one day face. They are still ignorant to the mechanics of baby-making; my son still squeals “Ew!” at the notion of kissing a girl.

My daughter doesn’t.

I remember from my childhood the always present crush on a boy, the tingle of a thrill when the boy I’d set my sights on looked my way. Hearts on a notebook, fervent wishes made in journals. The longing – for what? Attention? Love? At that age? What is it that makes girls chase boys from the earliest days of Kindergarten, while boys play sports and get filthy and build things, oblivious to our charms?

I generalize of course. While I am lucky enough to not know first hand the trauma of sexual assault, I do remember the pain that inevitably came at the hands of a boy. At some point, a note would be passed, a declaration made. A question: do you like me? Circle Y or N.

There are a lot of things I forget about my school days: my teachers’ names, books I’d read, math. But the sting that came with my first love’s rejection comes back with such clarity that I can feel it in my thirty-something year old body, sharp enough to draw a deep inhale of breath. The boy elbowing his friends, a cruel smile, a taunt, a jeer. The unmistakable circling of the letter “N.” The finality. The hurt.

While my daughter plays with her Kindergarten friend Olivia, giggling in her room and getting my makeup in her rug, my son is buried in his iPod, fingers gliding over a touch screen, pigs killed by enraged birds. He doesn’t notice the adoring eyes of my daughter’s friend. He is deaf to her nervous giggle, getting closer and closer, until she is compelled to bop him on the head, just to make him look up in annoyance, just for the thrill of a half-second of attention. That might be enough, I hear her think, to get him to notice me.

But he won’t. Not for years. I could pull her aside and talk to her about high school, about the time when circumstances reverse, and the boys awaken one morning suddenly conscious of the beauty of teenage girls. That’s when they bump into you by your locker. Just to get you to notice them.

But it isn’t my place to talk to Olivia. It won’t make a difference now. High school is so far away, a reality so distant that it doesn’t feel like one. High school problems and lessons too far off to have any impact on us now.

In the here and now, I pull my son aside, and ask him to remove his earbuds. I tell him about a time when I loved a boy in second grade. I tell him about a note I’d passed, about the hope in my heart, the excitement, the nerves. Then I tell him about what that boy said when he opened my note. I tell him about the hurt I experienced when he said, “Ew!” and pointed at me.

I tell him that a boy has a power over a girl who holds a crush on him in her heart. That he has the power to hurt her. That he doesn’t have to love her back, or even like her. But that he does have to be careful of her feelings.

And because he doesn’t have the capacity to love a girl like Olivia, but he does have an enormous reserve for his mother that won’t be diminished for years to come, he understands. He acts with kindness. In the years that are too quickly approaching, we’ll have another talk about vulnerability and the power to hurt. We’ll talk about bullying and kids who are smaller or weaker than he is. We’ll talk about girls who drink at parties.

And I’ll hope that the seeds we plant today will take root and that the power to hurt won’t be abused by my son or my daughter.

I’ll hope that it isn’t hubris to believe that empathy can be taught.

Author: Jaime Franchi

Jaime Franchi is a freelance writer living on Long Island. Her work can be found on Salon.com, Milieu Magazine, Punchnel's and the New York Times. www.JaimeFranchi.com

9 thoughts on “Innocence Stolen”

  1. Before I started reading this, I gathered some thoughts about rape, about why men do it and what we can do to prevent it. But reading your gentle, very personal essay, my sociological observations can be saved for another time. Having raised two daughters through their boy-crazy teen years, and having met several of their immature, geeky objects of affection, I understand the often torturous psychology of these relationships and just pray that their parents, and my wife and I, have done a good job.

  2. I believe in planting the seeds of kindness, respect, and empathy in our children right from the beginning. And continuing the lessons with each new season… Spot on, Jaime.

  3. I am of the opinion that facts and figures can be taught but true knowledge has to be experienced. Our job and the jobs of true teachers is to prepare our children to receive knowledge. I believe that empathy does not need to be taught; it is one of the first emotions we experience after acknowledging our own feelings. The question is can we assist our children in balancing there own feelings with those of others. Empathy may not be teachable but it can be stifled. It can be stomped out and shunned as a weakness or a flaw. Much of our society aids in this; consumerism, objectification, competition, the military, the work place and, of course, the media.

  4. @John – You make great points and I agree with the crux of your comment. I guess “taught” can be replaced with “encouraged.” After the verdict, a lot of words were flying, including some ugly accusations about the victim. A friend of mine (Joan, above) wrote a piece talking about how we teach girls how not to get raped, i.e. walk in groups, don’t drink too much, dress conservatively, but don’t focus on teaching boys not to rape. I think that lesson starts with lots of conversations about other people’s feelings. Experience would cement that knowledge, yet sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes that experience is victimization and the victim learns to torment others. Of course, my kids are small and could turn into raving maniacs come puberty.

  5. I think empathy is a personality trait and, as such, cannot be taught. It can, however, be encouraged, fostered and modeled by parents to make sure the trait is valued and retained. You are certainly doing all of that, and this lovely post proves it.

  6. Jaime – I really enjoy your writing in general and this essay in particular. I have been contemplating the question of teaching empathy for some time. My field is narrative and storytelling. I believe that the primary function of stories is to transfer experience. This is done via empathy and leads to learning. I think a healthy “normal” human being has an innate capacity for empathy – recent ideas about mirror neurons in the brain support this notion. When we watch another’s plight, we feel it in ourselves. Stories, effectively presented, trigger that empathic response and allow us to feel another’s experience. You told your son a story about yourself, triggered his empathy and gave him an experience to grow on. But I think empathy is not an end in itself. Rather, it is the pathway to compassion and a moral regard for the other. But the listener’s empathy must be involved. To do that, you must have the willing acceptance of your listener. As the mother speaking to your son, you involve him in a way no other can. This leads to a discussion about the role of the parent and the benefits of of warm, interpersonal storytelling over cold, impersonal news reporting. But I will save that for another time. Thank you for your good work!

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