Thursday, 24 November 2011

motherhood and empathy pie

Snooks walked out of school the other day brandishing an apple.

I say brandishing as this shows you exactly how he was carrying it (like an offensive weapon) and Snooks’ attitude toward all fruit (like an offensive weapon).

Delighted to see him holding such a symbol of life and goodness and well-being (except the whole Eve thing), I swelled with pride.

“Ooh what’s that you’ve got?’ I asked, stupidly, but hoping to draw the eyes of the other mums that they may hear his answer which in my excitement I had thought might spell ‘reward for good behaviour’. Stupid.

“An apple,” said Snooks, a little disconsolately, a touch embarrassed, even.

“I know but why have you got it?” (On I went, ever optimistic)

“The teacher gave it to me.” (Oh joy, oh joy, could it be a toy picked up voluntarily, a friend in need helped, even a song sung or story told for the enjoyment of the class…)

Snooks looked at it, frowned a little and said, matter of factly, “I don’t think she wanted it.”

You have got to love him. All my hopes for his having learned to play the system and get the rewards by following a few simple rules vanished in a flash, but my love for this funny little child flooded in.

Apart from his absolute inability to dissemble in order to win credit for himself, he also honestly cannot understand why anyone in their right mind would want fruit.

And then it dawned on me. Empathy. It is one of the few specific occasions I can remember where Snooks has demonstrated his ability to empathise. He put himself in teach’s shoes and thought about why she had given it away. And the answer was clear. Fruit sucks.

A friend hypothesised the other day about the correlation between children role-playing with toys and games and their ability to empathise. We were not sure which came first, those with natural empathy like to role-play or those encouraged to role play developed empathy. Perhaps a bit of both.

It has become fond family joke chez Snooks that when other children come to play, they cast around the room filled with cars, trucks, planes and tractors and ask: “But where are the people?”

Believe me I have tried. Remember back to the early days when Clairebear was snugged into the boy buggy only to be hurled out and run over with the wheels?

We have held tea parties for all the cuddlies where Snooks has peered into his tiny china cup wondering why there was no real food and drink in this joint.

Then came the era of dressing up where I donated half my vintage wardrobe to a box in his room hoping the more lifelike the clothes, the more likely Snooks would be to take part. But after one or two parades around the house wearing my matador–with-roses hat and a fake moustache, he lost interest. Even when I caved in and bought a commercial pirate costume accompanied by a hat, which frankly I am tempted to wear myself, Snooks refuses to act up.

So this, this faint glimmer of recognition about others, their separateness and their feelings heralds the dawn of a new era.

But it comes at a price. During that same week, I witnessed Snooks in an encounter, which also demonstrated his newfound sensitivity to others, though not in a good way.

He and his new school friend had gone to the local park after school as many do and were joined by another older boy who is a long standing friend of Snooks’ school pal.

I thought I had observed a little hostility from the older one when this combination cropped up accidentally once before but had dismissed it as my hypersensitivity to such things.

However there was no mistaking this one. As the boys scooted and the mums chatted my antennae (do you get that thing, where you just know something before it happens?) twitched when I noticed Snooks was lagging uncharacteristically behind the others. As the group moved on, the older boy turned back and walked towards Snooks, who slowly drew to a halt. Snooks is a little under height for his age and this boy is tall for his, and as I saw him stand and tower over my son, my legs started to take me over in their direction. They were in full view of the park so the boy would have been unwise to use his fists. But he did not need to. Whatever he said caused Snooks to dissolve into heaving sobs and cling around my neck the moment I arrived.

Now Snooks is small but pretty tough and I have seen him pushed, hit and even bitten with barely a flinch. So I was fairly sure this was not a physical threat. This he would have brushed off or offered similar in return. No this was something else.

“Take me home now!” he shouted, wrapping his legs around me.

I knew there was no point in asking the boy what he had said and when I tried to find out from Snooks he begged me not to ask him about it or tell anyone.

Although what I felt like doing was taking this boy to one side and carrying out some Guantanamo-style interrogation on him until he told me what he had said, I decided to grant Snooks his wish to get the hell out of there.

But as we were heading for the gate I noticed the boys returning some balloons they had been playing with to another child who had brought them to the park and remembered that Snooks did not have one.

Out of earshot I gently asked Snooks whether he had wanted a balloon to play with and was that the problem.

“I want to go to the party,” he sobbed sadly into my shoulder.

As we rejoined the mums to say goodbye, the older boy stood behind his looking guiltily up at Snooks.

“I think there has been a misunderstanding,” I enunciated clearly to the boy’s mum. “X seems to think someone is having a party but I don’t think that is so, is it?” I asked turning my best steely gaze on the boy. It was a gamble, but I knew the balloons had been brought to the park by a child who was new to the area and did not know anybody. I knew this because his mother had asked me if Snooks would play with him.

“Is there a party?” she asked him.

“No,” he muttered.

“There is no party is there?” I asked him in a way which I hoped said: “You do that to my son again and you have me to deal with,” and we left it at that.

Snooks eventually recovered though it took longer than any other pain he has encountered yet in his life. I did my best to help him through explaining that not everyone would be nice to him and cashing in on the opportunity to remind him how important it was to be kind to others.

Empathy. Like fruit. It sucks.

1 comment:

  1. aw it's enough to break your heart isn't it? Poor little thing. Learning life's lessons can be tough, but I think your response was inspired!