Teaching Children to Shoulder Another’s Burden

Q: This past Erev Shabbos, about two hours before the zman, a Hatzoloh truck with lights flashing and sirens blaring pulled up to the home of our neighbors across the street. My entire family was home at the time and everyone ran to the window to watch. I told my wife and children that I did not think it was proper for us to be staring if someone will be brought out on a stretcher. My wife went back to the kitchen. I sat down to say some Tehillim. And my kids stayed glued to the window.

Later that night, in shul (after davening) I mentioned what had happened to a friend. He brushed the whole thing aside and said I was expecting too much of my children. Kids are all naturally curious, he said. And he felt my expectations were unrealistic. I was wondering what you would say about this.

A: Studies have shown that people’s first instinct is usually correct. For that reason, when taking a multiple choice test, it is always recommended not to change your answer unless you are convinced that you answered incorrectly. Similarly, I feel your initial reaction was very much on target.

While middos can and should be taught in school, the primary venue for children to acquire good middos is at home. And certainly one of the most important middos parents must instill in their children from an early age is to be “nos’ei b’ol im chaveiro.” (Pirkei Avos 6:6)  According to the Midrash Shmuel, this means being able to feel another’s pain as if it were your own. And the English word for this is empathy.

Some people are naturally sensitive to other people’s feelings. Others are just the opposite and are totally clueless about the emotional life of others. Clinical studies have proven, however, that empathy can be learned. And I believe it is the responsibility of all parents to teach empathy to their children.

It is the lack of empathy which creates a fertile environment for the weed of bullying to sprout and grow in a classroom. Bullying is a serious problem which can have devastating consequences. Unfortunately, this social ill will never be fully eradicated, as there will always be some children who attempt to bully others. If more children in the class were empathic, however, the bullies would never succeed in garnering so much support and thereby wielding so much power.

Returning to your letter, you were modeling for your children a very laudable level of empathy. You were putting yourself in your neighbors’ shoes and doing what you would want them to do if the situation had been reversed. While teaching by example is an excellent pedagogical strategy, it is not always sufficient. What you had on that Erev Shabbos, therefore, was a teachable moment which could have been exploited more fully.

Your friend was right. Children are naturally curious. They are also naturally selfish, self-centered and impatient. I certainly hope, however, that your friend would not abandon his responsibility to correct those bad middos. Why, then, would he ignore a lack of empathy?

Some parents want to teach empathy but do not know how to go about it. In case you are one of them, here is a crash course. Instead of lecturing, it is much more effective to lead a discussion, at which all family members can participate. You, or your spouse, can pose thought-provoking questions. As all children love answering questions, you will have no trouble holding onto their attention during this “lesson,” which could be conducted at the Shabbos table. It would sound something like this.

“How do you think the Goldbergs felt when the Hatzoloh van pulled up today in front of their house?… How would you feel if, chas v’shalom, we had to call Hatzoloh?…  Suppose someone in their family had to be carried out on a stretcher and put into the van to be taken to the hospital. How do you think that person would feel if they looked up and saw all the neighbors staring from their windows?… Do you think they might feel embarrassed? Have you ever felt embarrassed?… I have. And I felt so much worse when people were staring at me. What do you think a person on a stretcher would want other people to do? If you were in that situation, chas v’shalom, what would you want them to do?… I would want them not to stare from the window. And I would want them to open up a Tehillim and daven for me. What do you say the next time we see a Hatzoloh van, we all say a kapitel Tehillim together?  In that way we can really help instead of hurting whoever is not feeling well.”


The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.