Hmm…  This one is complicated.  One of my readers who never had children asked me about teaching kids manners, and whether I thought it was also possible to teach empathy.  The first part of the question is easy.  Most parents try to teach their kids to say “please” and “thank you” from an early age and how to behave in various settings (assuming that the parents themselves were taught).   Of course some kids will learn manners faster than others, just as some learn to read and do multiplication tables at an earlier age. By adulthood, even the most boorish brats know how to hold a knife and fork and say “thank you,” even if they don’t always remember to write a note.   In my view, learning to be polite requires memorizing rules and then paying attention to the situations that call for them.   I believe most kids can master basic good manners because— sooner or later— they learn that they will not succeed without them.  Manners are a learned skill and can be used for personal gain without much feeling. Empathy is a different story altogether.

      Serial killers and psychopaths may well have impeccable manners; how else could they attract their victims?  These extreme personality types are completely lacking in empathy, but good manners can substitute for feelings or masquerade as compassion.   Proper etiquette can be the key to helping  people in different cultures, religions, and belief systems negotiate and compromise instead of killing each other.

      Since I have twins with diametrically different special needs, they may (or may not) be comparable to neurotypical children when it comes to learning manners and demonstrating empathy.   At age three when asked for a kiss,   Max immediately responded:   “Say please!”  He clearly understood the power—comedic and otherwise—of that word and how to apply it.  At age 22, he will always allow a woman to enter an elevator first, offer her a seat on the bus, or open a door.  He’s very attuned to the opposite sex…. On the other hand, his table manners still leave a lot to be desired.  His elbows often end up on the table, and he doesn’t always hold his fork correctly. Sometimes he gets up from the table without asking to be excused, or walks away from the person talking to him in the middle of a sentence.   My husband calls these excursions “walk abouts” and finds them disrespectful.  How would you feel if someone walked away from you in the middle of a sentence?

     Max’s walk-abouts —along with shoveling his food and his leaning on the table—are part of his ADHD, examples of the impulsivity, inattention and restlessness that make these kids challenging to live with.  Max knows the rules, but he isn’t always “paying attention” when they need to be applied.

      On the positive side, Max has demonstrated enormous empathy, almost to the point of over-sensitivity.  (Perhaps this is connected to his hypochondria?)  As a five year old, Max presented me with a picture of two dinosaurs colored in bright magic markers to cheer me up when I was crying.   At age nine, he started to cry after catching a female trout that dropped hundreds of eggs when he pulled  her out of the water  Now, as a young adult, he’s always sensitive and generous (toward his friends, if not his parents.)

      Of course, Sarah is entirely different in terms of both manners and empathy.  Despite being on the autistic spectrum, Sarah has impeccable table manners. She wields her knife and fork perfectly and is extremely polite and charming to waiters and other adults we encounter.   Unlike Max, Sarah never leaves a table without asking to be excused.    She might interrupt—something Max never does—but she would never walk away from someone speaking to her.   As a teenager, Sarah always came home in time for her curfew and called if she was delayed.  Sarah understood—in a way her brother didn’t—that we’d be worried to death if she didn’t call. This is an example of empathy and/or consideration.

     Some so-called experts say people on the autistic spectrum don’t have empathy, because they are unable to understand a perspective outside of their own.   Lately, there’s a new theory that people with ASDs suffer from being overly sensitive and are self-involved or disconnected to protect themselves from pain.  Both of these theories probably have merit, but neither one can explain my daughter.  Sarah will never have her brother’s empathy because she doesn’t understand more complex social situations, like the idea that not everyone wants a hug or company if they’re sad.   But Sarah is every bit as kind as Max.  When she was in kindergarten and a classmate cut his finger or felt sad, she would be the first one to kiss him and say she hoped he’d feel better soon.   However, the warm, affectionate approach that always worked for Sarah in kindergarten can sometimes backfire in college when a depressed classmate simply wants to be left alone.  

      Sarah isn’t wired to understand emotional subtlety, even her own.    Unlike most people who have daily ups and downs, Sarah is unrelentingly cheerful and upbeat— until she unravels into one of her periodic explosions.  My daughter struggles with social skills and conversation, but, rather than withdraw into her own world, she stays busy with a few friends who share her interests.  Like Sarah, these young adults are polite and kind.  But they don’t talk about gun control or the plight of women in Arab countries.
     In the end, I guess most kids can learn enough etiquette to function in their own culture, but empathy may be more elusive.  If parents show empathy toward a child, hopefully that child will naturally develop similar feelings— feelings that go beyond superficial consideration to true emotional attunement.   For centuries, religion has tried to teach children to be generous and charitable, while schools—especially today—make community service a requirement to graduate.

     Yet because of technology and the information age, children bully each other more cruelly now than ever before.  Sadly, the victims of these bullies are more likely to have physical or learning differences.  As a mother of special needs twins, my heart goes out to those victims and their parents whose children are suffering more than mine did.  Max and Sarah mostly grew up when insults and humiliation were still painful but temporary upsets at school and had not yet morphed into social ruin in cyberspace.  

     To all of the computer geeks and wizards of technology, I beg you to have some compassion for all of the children whose parents are buying your products and making you billionaire masters of the universe.  Apply your genius to helping parents teach empathy along with good manners.



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