Just a short story on empathy

I have to admit, I was worried. “She’s five, isn’t empathy supposed to kick in by now?” I kept asking myself. I was trying to do everything I could to teach it. Little bits of sharing here, role modeling there, asking her questions about her feelings. I was getting no where. And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was more than a little worried some days.

But then it happened. We were on a walk to the park. Baby in the stroller, daughter skipping by my side. She had a lot of questions this day, and I remember trying to keep up. Then it was, “What is that up there?”

“A dead squirrel,” I replied.

“Can we see it? Can I touch it?”

“No,” I replied. The sheer thought of going near that squirrel was hard for me. Not too many months ago, I ran over a squirrel. I didn’t see it coming and it ran under my back wheel. I cried on and off for a good two hours.

“It’s too sad,” I told her. “This poor squirrel was hit by a car and shouldn’t have been.”

She shrugged and to the park we went. She was carrying a piece of paper in her pocket. I still can’t remember what it was. Her pockets are always full of mysterious items. Most, I itemize as garbage. To her, they’re treasures, keepsakes, reminders of whatever adventure she’s been on. This time, it was only a piece of trash and she wanted to give it to me to throw out.

“Hold onto it,” I told her, “there is no trash can here.”

She played and played. Up and down the slides. Across the monkey bars. On and off the swings while the baby giggled beside her.

“It’s time to go; it’s getting dark,” I told her.

“It’s gone,” she yelled, “I can’t find it.” Panic was setting in. She had lost the piece of trash in her pocket. We looked and looked, scoured that entire park for this tiny piece of paper.

But it was getting really dark. “I’m sorry kiddo, we have to go,” I said.

“I LITTERED,” she wailed.

Shocked and surprised, I told her it was okay. That maybe someone else would find it and throw it out.

She calmed down a bit, but I could sense her disappointment. She loves this planet and is learning to treat it with respect. She was pretty sad that she may have harmed it.

“Maybe someone will find it,” I heard her say quietly to herself. She walked up the steep hill towards home, the dead squirrel waiting for us at the top.

“Can I at least say goodbye?” she asked.

“To the squirrel?”

She nodded.

“Sure, kiddo,” I replied.

“Goodbye squirrel, I’m sorry you were hurt and died,” she yelled up the street.

I put my hand on her head, gave her a kiss, and sighed.

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