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Unlikely Teacher of Empathy

By Joel Gunzburg - Read the original blog here

It was a warm and bright Saturday afternoon. My son had just finished a soccer match, full of 9-year-old excitement and drama. He had scored two goals, followed by Ronaldo-inspired celebrations: jumping in the air, twisting, and landing with outstretched arms. We smiled and joked en route to the car.

He convinced me to buy him a cherry-flavored Slushie. As a proud father, I agreed.

As we pulled up to the convenience store, I let my son know how fun it is to watch him play soccer. I am lucky to share such a joyful relationship with him. We were all smiles as we walked in, bantering back and forth. The store clerk took interest in our exchange and blurted out to my son. “You look like a mini Cristiano Ronaldo!”

My son flashed the back of his jersey, proudly pointing to the number 7. The same number as Ronaldo! My son chatted with the clerk about how he was going to be better than Ronaldo. “Do you want my autograph now?” he joked.

We all erupted in laughter. I chimed in to boast about my son’s skills. “You should have seen the goals he scored today!” I began to show how he had celebrated, puffing out his chest, landing in a twisting jump.

The clerk chuckled, put his hand on my shoulder, and spoke to my son. “That’s great, but do me one favor: don’t be fat like your dad!”

It was a gut punch.

I’m someone who has struggled with body image issues for most of my adolescent and adult life. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to process two of my favorite Stuart Shanker Self-Reg questions “Why am I seeing this behavior and why now?” but I was frozen in disbelief.

The clerk laughed as he would with one of his buddies. Slowly, my brain recalibrated and recognized my revulsion. It was toxic masculinity. Greetings, old friend!

There I stood with my son, contemplating how to react. He knows that I hate jokes about weight and I could tell that he was mortified, waiting for me to say something as I paid the clerk. Instead, I laughed out loud and told him with eye contact, “Have a great day!”

We walked out the door and I looked down at my son and he was livid. “Why did you laugh at that?” he said with a look of disdain and disappointment on his face.

I felt so many angry and sad feelings. “It was the best thing I could do at the moment,” I replied. I explained that if I yelled at the clerk, the situation could have gone out of control. I also explained that if I’d shared my pain or vulnerability, they could have hurt me more. I told my son that it was the clerk’s intention to make me laugh, so the best I could summon in the moment was a laugh.

“How often do you think I’ll think about what he said to me?” I asked my son, filled with frustration and hurt.

He looked at me with curiosity and replied, “Probably a lot?”

I agreed and shared that it was likely to happen when I looked in the mirror or when I ate food. Then I vowed to him that I was going to make something positive of this situation. I could create a lesson for my elementary school social emotional learning class. He thought that was a great idea.

A few days later, I opened my computer to determine where this story fit within my curriculum. My intention was to reframe the experience at the convenience store in a way that exemplified empathy while modeling vulnerability of one’s feelings in a safe way. Thirty minutes later, I found the perfect place to insert this story: the “Stress Detectives” unit!

Three weeks later, I’m in a third grade classroom to explain the Five Domains of Stress to students. I write the five domains on the board and provide short examples for each.

We discuss the biological domain and how bodily discomforts can make us dysregulated. The students share my disdain for chapped lips! I work through the emotional, cognitive, and social domains with more relatable examples.

Then we get to the prosocial domain. “Prosocial stress is any stress you may experience when you see or perceive the stress of others. I have a good story that can help you understand the difference between social and prosocial stress. This story might make you feel angry or sad for me, but I’m okay sharing it with you because I trust you.”

I launch into the story and the children are captivated. I reach the point where the clerk puts his hand on my shoulder and says the hurtful words. “Don’t be fat like your dad!”

I pause and read the room. I see disbelief and hurt in their eyes. One student calls out, “Joel, I think I’m going to cry.” As I walk across to him, I look over at the classroom teacher and his eyes are welling up too. I thank the group for their innate kindness. They put themselves in my shoes and immediately understood my feelings. “You have just shown me one of the most loving forms of empathy that I have ever experienced.”

I ask them to put themselves in my son’s shoes. “What do you think he was feeling?” The conversation expands and we discuss the stress you may experience when you see a family member in a hurtful situation. They begin to discern the difference between social and prosocial stress.

Then, I ask the class to pick a domain of stress and provide an example from their lives that won’t cause too much stress for them to discuss in class. They offer a number of examples: “Biological…I get stressed when my stomach doesn’t feel well.” “Biological…I get grumpy when I don’t get enough sleep.” “Cognitive…I get really stressed when I don’t know how to spell a word in our spelling challenge.” The students are actively listening to each others’ examples and engaged with empathy. When it’s time to say goodbye to the class, the teacher pulls me aside, “Nicely done, my friend!” I leave the class feeling proud of our work.

Following this initial success, I repeated the lesson at scaffolded levels for grades 1 through 5 and the results were similar in every classroom. By reframing a challenging situation, providing an experiential lesson of empathy, and modeling how to be vulnerable in a safe place, we were able to have a powerful positive impact on students. I sense it is a story they won’t soon forget.

Lastly, a few words for the convenience store clerk who became the unlikely teacher of empathy to over a hundred children. The incident probably hasn’t crossed your mind again, but you have helped students understand empathy at a deeper level. They now understand the Five Domains of Stress more concretely and we have laid the groundwork to challenge “harmless” teasing and body shaming. You allowed me to show my son how to behave in a similar situation. Thank you! The pleasure is all mine!

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2 komentarze

Lisa Cranston
Lisa Cranston
22 gru 2022

Thank you for sharing this story. You've taken a very difficult, uncomfortable situation and used soft eyes to turn it into a learning opportunity for yourself, your son, and your students. Like you, I'm often uncertain how to react when someone I don't know well says something hurtful and you've given me a model for how I might handle this stressor in the future.

Aviva Dunsiger
Aviva Dunsiger
23 gru 2022
Odpowiada osobie:

Lisa, I'm so glad that you wrote this comment. I think that it really sums up so much of my thinking here. It really makes me wonder how we might reply in similar ways to our own difficult or hurtful experiences, and if this might ultimately shift our feelings and de-escalate stress.


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