Teaching Empathy

When my daughter was two, we were making our usual visit to the Thursday afternoon Farmer’s Market in Berkeley when we encountered another toddler having a temper tantrum on the lawn. The toddler’s mother was desperately trying to get the child off the grass–where she was wailing and kicking–and back into her stroller. The mom had the horrified look that we all get when our children “lose it” in public.

My daughter dropped my hand and walked over to the child on the grass, gently lowering herself to the ground on her back beside the wailing child. The child stopped her thrashing, but her sobs continued, and my daughter carefully inched toward her until their heads were touching lightly together. My daughter turned her head slightly and gazed sideways at the other child, head-to-head with her.

Then, to the amazement of the adults who gathered around, two other toddlers who had been playing nearby joined my daughter and the crying girl on the lawn, laying with their heads all together on the grass, their bodies like spokes of a wheel. The crying child sobbed for another minute or so while her new toddler friends stayed calm and close, and then as we parents looked on, our jaws hanging, she carefully sat up and slowly climbed back into her stroller.

Common lore says that toddlers are too young to be able to empathize with others, but this hasn’t been my experience at all. What my daughter and the other toddlers demonstrated that afternoon at the Farmer’s Market was that children are inclined toward empathy, and that when they witness it, they want to participate in it.

This was not a stand-alone event, though. My daughter was just doing what is normal at our house: when feelings begin to flow, those who love you move in close, make contact and listen without trying to solve the problem. And when everyone has had their good cry or needed outburst, we can carry on with a smooth day together (for the most part). Leah was showing what I received over many years from an array of amazing teachers, and what has become a way of life for me.

Let me explain.

Twenty years ago, my dear friend Jasmin Sanders showed me a radical way of being with children that she had learned from her teacher, Patty Wipfler, the founder of Hand-in-Hand Parenting. So when I was thirty five and struggling with a baby who wouldn’t nurse, wouldn’t sleep, and wouldn’t stop crying, I looked Patty Wipfler up—and thank God that I did! She taught me how to companion my daughter compassionately (though not permissively) through all that life threw at us (and that was considerable).

Annie Tyson, who trained with Patty for the twenty years when her two children were growing up, has been my closest teacher during these years of parenting. Her spacious, loving, available attention was my lifeline especially through my years as a single parent, simultaneously living with a chronic and debilitating digestive condition. With regular doses of her extraordinarily loving attention, I was able to return and be present again for my unfolding relationship with my daughter.

I had some preparation before becoming a parent though. For several years before my daughter was born, Barbara Knyper was my teacher. She taught me how to lean into all my life experience, sensing deeply into even the painful parts rather than shying away. This equipped me for parenting in ways I could not have anticipated. Parenting breaks your heart open again and again, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, and being able to stay open to that, has also allowed me to stay open to the connection, the sweetness, the depth of love. In Barbara’s powerful presence, and in the field of her gentle, curious, courageous attention, my own presence was welcomed forth.

Rev. Karen Foster, Rev. Rebecca Parker, and Rev. Lynice Pinkard all modeled for me how to minister with my head and my heart in concert with one another. They each “got” me, and showed me how to bring myself forth–my mind and my compassion–to my relationships with congregants. And, oh my, that helped during the years when my congregation was reduced to one: one stunning, brilliant, demanding and spirited child, my Leah…who needed me with her fully, head and heart.

But my first teacher, and the teacher that has been with me the longest, through thick and thin, is my own mother, Karolyn Jernigan. My mother has taught me to be tenacious about sticking with the learnings of parenting, and how to make a priority of ones relationship with ones children. She has modeled how to turn every challenge, every wrinkle, every conflict, even every devastation, into a chance to learn and grow in love, and a chance to deepen our relationship.

So, yes, I have been blessed with a truly extraordinary line of women teachers who have helped me develop my own heart, my own presence, my own capacity to listen and pay attention. They said many things to me over time, but the greatest teaching was in how they were with me. In being spacious, offering clear, precise attention, warmth, acceptance, and confidence in me… they infected me with their empathy, with their courage to stay open and present through difficulties, my own and those of others.

Empathy is a like a wonderful virus, a highly communicable one. The women teachers in my life each infected me with their own variety of it, and I then could not help but pass it on to my child…

And that day at the Farmer’s Market, I watched as Leah infected the other toddlers with her warm, generous, accepting attention. And I thought: yes, child, take up this lineage we have been so privileged to participate in, and pass it on with your gorgeous self…

Empathy breeds empathy.
Pass it on.

2 thoughts on “Teaching Empathy”

  1. Rev. Jernigan–you rock!!! You could not have a truer calling! An amazing embodiment of love in action or justice–parenting as the first work of justice!

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