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.
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.)
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.
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.