One Way Kids Learn Empathy

Can older people be part of the puzzle?

Posted Apr 15, 2019

I have a son who has proudly just turned 5. Nothing, however, makes him more proud, than his blossoming relationship with the elders he sees in his New York City neighborhood.

It all started one day when he was walking home from his martial arts class, still in full uniform, and noticed an old man with a walker, walking I might add, very, very slowly, compared to us average New Yorkers.

He said “Hi”.

Ryan McGuire Gratisography244
Source: Ryan McGuire Gratisography244

The man didn’t hear or notice my tiny human, so he tried again, this time a little louder. “HI. HAVE A GREAT DAY” (I’ve since taught him, that their ears don’t work as well as ours sometimes!) The elderly man, trying his best to get somewhere through the busy streets of the Upper West side, turned to look at him and woke up. It was a precious moment for both of them.

The man felt seen, witnessed, noticed and even important in the eyes of a child.

The child felt seen, witnessed, noticed and also important in the eyes of this man.

This older man, despite being very surprised by a 5yr old engaging him in conversation, spoke to him for a few moments. They spoke about his martial arts class, how cold it still was in NYC and that he had difficulty getting to the shops. Even though at least 70yrs separated these 2 souls…my little guy walked with him for a few minutes to the supermarket on the corner. He felt like a real superhero, helping this man and was clearly on a real-world mission to get him somewhere!

I’ve wondered as a parent how best to teach children connection, compassion, and empathy. He has found his own small way to build those up inside of him.

There is a growing movement that is finally remembering and recognizing the impact of elders on all people in society. My friend Chip Conley has written a wonderful book, on the subject about the value of elders in the workplace. There is also the huge value of connecting younger kids to elders, to share life lessons, to believe in them and to give both generations, deep meaning, and purpose.

For the last year since we moved back here after living in Cape Town, my son looks for un-noticed people. Anywhere and everywhere. He loves walking out the door and going on a mission, searching for people who are ignored, sad, by themselves, old, homeless, not smiling and simply saying those simple words: ‘Hi, have a great day’. And then he waits patiently for the smile or the response. He doesn’t stop if he doesn’t get one. He gently ‘wakes them out of their NYC slumber’. He feels he matters and can make a difference. He often leaves giving them a thumbs up.

I’ve watched him do this a few dozen times now. It has awakened me and certainly them. Why don’t we notice others? Why do we ignore the elderly and all they have to share?

When I asked my son what his mission here on Planet Earth was, he of course said, “ to say Hi to people and see them smile”. Pretty simple when you think of it.

When you see a city like New York through the eyes of a tiny human, you go far beyond the level of self-concern we are so used to. Life isn’t just about our goals and getting from A to B and then C. Me- Me- Me.

Life involves others. Children notice and feel that. They invite us to do the same.

I don’t think most people would associate this city with the beauty of older people who’ve seen so much in their precious lifetimes…but rather noise, smell, rats, busy subways, stress…!

The amazing thing is that I, in my mid-40s, now notice them daily. In the midst of my commute, my busyness, my meetings, yes, I smile when I see them. I’ve done decades of personal development, workshops, coaching, books…I’ve never really focused on the older people in my neighborhood.

Try it.

By yourself or with a Tiny Human.

It may add something sweet and special to your day.