So much has been written about the importance of empathy in recent years.I describe empathy as the lynch pin of social and emotional development in boys in my book Boys of Few Words. This belief stems directly from my work with boys, many of whom have done things which they should regret, but don’t. And so those of us working to help kids get their moral bearings have struggled with how to teach those ideas. Last week, Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote an article for the NYT on this topic, and it got plenty of attention.Grant emphasizes that the most effective response to bad behavior is to express disappointment. Where children have a viable conscience – I agree.Disappointment is a powerful corrector because well attached kids are so identified with their parents that the feeling of having disappointed them is somewhat unbearable.
But the real challenge is all the kids who lack that sort of attachment, who feel no investment in pleasing authority, and who see every human exchange as a “win” or a “loss.” I believe there is a shadow of this phenomenon even among emotionally well boys. We may applaud these characteristics when they are successfully employed in the marketplace, but what about at home? With friends? With teachers?
The road to kindness and empathy is a long one for boys. There can certainly be challenges among younger children, but they pale in comparison to those found among boys between 13-19. Where families themselves are not strong enough to turn the tide, we will have to rely on a stable of community mentors. Some of those mentors must be men who have internalized the importance of empathy in their own lives, and who can demonstrate how to be kind and masculine to a legion of kids who at present don’t see a path forward.