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Is Apathy a Learned Behavior?

Is Apathy a Learned Behavior Pennies of Time

Even from their youngest years,

toddlers respond to other children when they are upset,

even go so far as to offer their own toys or snacks

to help quell distress and crying.

So, how does apathy begin?

You know what I mean. The attitude of indifference to the plight of others. Why the lack of effort to write the thank you note (I know you’ve heard the exasperated sigh from a kid when you’ve asked her to sit down and write a note to Grandma) or even the lack of interest to help out a little sister when she is upset?

The Experts say that we should model empathy, talk about being kind and responding to the needs of others, and teach kids to be able to label and respond to other’s emotions. Are we doing that?

A common complaint I hear is, “She just doesn’t take the time to care about anyone else. She blows through the room knocking down things, causing problems, and doesn’t seem to care. I taught her better than that. Didn’t I?” Didn’t she? Do we?

I want to talk about our behavior. What are WE modeling to our kids? OUR actions show them what is important no matter what we may tell them.

Here is the MOST common comment I get from a frustrated parent who wants kinder kids and has even considered completing acts of kindness with them: I JUST DON’T HAVE THE TIME.

Stop right there. You don’t have the time to focus on kindness with your kids. Yet, you want them to be more kind?

Let’s be real. We are busy raising families, getting homework done, making sure we have toilet paper, and are doing our best to do a good job. Right? Life is busier than ever. Distractions abound. We are all striving to find the balance in our family’s schedule.  I.Get.It.

But, how many of us stop to help another on a regular basis in a way that involves our kids? And I mean really involves our kids, asking for their help, their input?

I know. Life is busy. Sometimes it feels like getting the task complete or the “right” answer down is a “to do” that just needs to get done so we can get to tomorrow.

Let’s self-assess:

What do we do when kids point out need, and it is an inconvenient time for us to help, or we are unsure of how to help?

  • Maybe we tell our kids that they are so nice to recognize the need, maybe tell them that they have such giving hearts, and then we . . . what?
  • Pat them on the head and continue the important conversation we were having before the kids interrupted the chat . . . ? Walk away or say, “There is nothing we can do.” (yes, yes, yes–I have seen this.)
  • Say,”Let’s talk about it later.” And, then never do because we forget. Um, or we hope they do?

Guess what? All of those things foster apathy, NOT empathy. I know that none of us are knowingly trying to squelch compassion in our kids. Right?

How can we balance the busy-ness of life and the need to involve our kids in the act of being kind to others, to help them learn to be empathetic and AVOID apathy? 

How do we teach our kids to care for others, know when it is appropriate to serve verses move on, all while holding back the ever surfacing tide of apathy that surrounds them? (you’ve heard of the bystander effect, right?)

Story Time

Not long after our family started doing daily acts of kindness, Little Brother and I were rushing off to make it on-time to a meeting. We passed a guy on the side of the road. To me, he was a guy on the side of the road. But Little Brother piped up from the back of the car.

“Mom, that is a man in need. He could be homeless.  We need to stop.”

Um, we were almost late. If we stopped we would certainly be late. Nope, I don’t want that.

“You know, we can stop to help him. But, let’s get to the meeting first and we can come back by later.” That was my response. I know, soooo lame.

“No, Mom. We need to stop now.” My usually jovial and silly Little Brother was trying to be firm in what we needed to do.

(Inward sigh).

“Okay, we are almost to the building. I’ll drop off this stuff and we can turn right around. We’ll tell them that we’ll be right back for the meeting.” That was my compromise. Yes, you can boo on my behavior.

Little Brother grumbled but there wasn’t anything else he could do. I control the car. We dropped off the materials, told the group we would be right back, and circled back around.

We drove to the exact spot we saw him, and the man was gone.

I turned the car around and drove around the cross streets. He was gone.

We went back to the spot, again. He was gone. My heart dropped.

And, I was in big trouble. A very upset Little Brother was devastated that we weren’t able to help that man and he *knew* it was our job to help him. Yes, you can boo on my behavior, again.

Do you want your kids and grandkids to be in a world that fosters kindness and empathy or in a place that is okay with apathy because we were BUSY!

Okay, now that I’ve been a bit bossypants, judgmental, and called myself out for being guilty: What solutions can I bring to the table?

You know that I am a big proponent of taking 15 minutes a day to complete an act of kindness. In our Family Kindness Adventure Program, I actually only challenge families to do a weekly act of kindness.

But let’s say that we are too BUSY to do that. (okay, I am being a bit sarcastic but let’s say we really are too busy to help another once a week for really good reasons). Here are some of my thoughts.

Tips to Avoid Apathy:

1. Decide what you can do as a family for those recurring needs that you aren’t sure what do to. That will be different for everyone. I carry around homeless care kits because I hate driving by someone in need and not being able to help. My husband now carries around an empty gas can in case someone needs help. (And, he has used it twice to help stranded drivers that needed gas.) We keep our Kindness Kit on hand, which has basic supplies to help when we want to do an act of kindness. Those are 3 things we have now on hand to help: homeless care kit, gas can, and a kindness kit.

2. Take the time to talk about it with your kids. Always take the honest approach with your kids and talk about what can be done right now versus in the future. “Sharon, you are right they really need help. I am not sure what to do. Do you think that we can help right now? Is there something that we can do later on to help?”

3. Let Go of Control. Don’t ignore a need because you don’t know how to help, or don’t know the answer, or are overwhelmed with the need. Don’t ignore it because it wasn’t your idea or what you planned to do. Don’t ignore it because it makes you uncomfortable. Recognize with your kids what is happening and let them know that the family will discuss it later that evening. Then, follow-up. Talk with your kids about what was seen and how the family can help. Learn as a family ways to help address the need that your children recognized. You don’t have to have all the answers right in the moment.

4. Decide if it is okay or not to be late in case a need comes up. This is a personal decision I had to make pretty early on when my boys started recognizing needs around them. Example: See a person in need on the side of the road. (You read the story right?) You think,”Hhhhhhmmmmm, I am running to go do something. If I stop, I will be late. Is that okay?”

Our family decision was that, yes, it is okay to be late.

It is better to help now and let others know we’ll be tardy, rather than wonder for the rest of the day if the person was okay or if we made the right decision in passing by that opportunity to help.

5. Be encouraging of your kids on tackling the BIG ISSUES. Big Brother has a soft spot in his heart for those that are in need, the homeless. He is always coming up with ideas on how to help. Are any of them really feasible? I don’t know. I am not an expert on that area or financial models or economic equality. But, I don’t have to be. We encourage him to keep thinking, to ask questions, to learn how to research the issue because ONE DAY he may be part of a movement that truly ends homelessness.

What do you do?

How do you teach your kids to care for others, know when it is appropriate to serve verses move on, all while holding back the ever surfacing tide of apathy that surrounds them?

What do you do? I need to hear what you think.

Is apathy learned