After Steubenville: Teaching Empathy

800px-Hannie_Mein_Schieringerweg_Comenius_Leeuwarden_1Cross-posted with permission from

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, 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 make-up 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 ear-buds. 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.

Contributor Jaime Franchi is a freelance writer living on Long Island. Her work can be found on, Milieu Magazine, Punchnel’s, and soon in the New York Times “Motherlode” blog. Follow her on Twitter at @Jaimimimama.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons license

  • Keep planting those seeds, Jaime. It’s not so much my kid I worry about, it’s the people he surrounding himself with. The world is just such a scary place. Excellent piece.

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