Recently, when our social worker, Angela was here, I was asked if I was good at having empathy. "Suuuuuure!" I said. What else would you say? "No"? I'd like to think this is one of my strong suits. I suppose everyone does. So I of course thought of how my "having empathy" for a child in my care would translate into a real life scenario. I think that it's obvious when you know of a child who has been through hell, your immediate response is to want to wrap your arms around that child and give them the biggest "oh poor, poor baby" you can muster. And this will likely continue and this child will just be a little sad sac looking for empathy all the time, right? "Replacement Mommy, may I please have a glass of water? I was beaten for the first 6 years of my life with a hammer." "Oh of course my little angel! I don't even care that it's 3 o'clock in the morning. Let me cut a lemon for your water and we will sit happily on the couch snuggling in safety."
That would be a really great situation! Of course that's assuming the child has really great communication skills, social skills, no post-traumatic stress syndrome, and you're not a basket case at 3 in the morning.
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking other people are capable of thinking just like we are. Almost as if our minds were made of the same batter. If we know how to be respectful, so should other people, darnit! Right?
Two days ago, my kids found a well in our backyard that no one knew was there. It may have been built a hundred years ago, I don't know. So they dug around it, opened it up bigger, threw stuff in it, made wishes, had a great time. I did not enjoy the discovery of the well like they did. In fact, to me, it was awful. I was a wreck for the rest the night. I had visions of Jessica McClure, the toddler from 25 years ago who fell down a well and almost died. I had visions of my kids falling in that well and dying. I had visions of awful things happening.
My kids didn't feel that way at all. Firstly, they weren't alive 25 years ago to remember that Baby Jessica was on every news station on every TV for days at a time. Her distraught parents clinging to the hope that she would somehow make it out alive. My children had only good visions of the well. In their mind, wells are the beautiful little building surrounded by flowers where throw a penny down the hole means wishes coming true.
So they looked at me like I was on glue when I covered the opening with bricks, big rocks, threw a giant tire on top and threatened them with punishment for going near it. Obviously, they had no empathy for me. We weren't thinking the same way. Nothing they could say would convince me that I was overreacting and I should not be so afraid of the well. In fact, their saying that would probably get me even more hot and bothered making me even more impassioned to state my case.
I recently read David Pelzer's "A Child Called 'It'", which tells the true story of his abuse at the hands of his mother. During one horrible situation, after burning her sons hand by hold it over the stove top burner, she demanded he climb up and lie of the stove. She apparently intended to burn his entire body. David, at age 7 or 8 knew that his mother acted "less bizarre when others were in the house, had decided that if he could just stall her into beating him for the next 10 minutes or so until his brothers came home , he could hold off on obeying her to get on the stove and prevent his death. This is a small boy who had to think of a way to not be murdered!
Have you ever had that thought? Have any of us ever had a situation at that age where we had to be so thoughtful in order not to die? Probably not. This is a boy who doesn't think like my 8 year old. Same age, same grade, same home, doesn't matter. These two kids will see the well 2 different ways.
And it won't be spoken about in perfect English either. Instead of sitting down and having a frank discussion about all the things your foster child will be thinking, the thoughts will come out more like this: Breaking in to your neighbor's house and stealing their food even though you feed them plenty because they've learned stealing food always gets them fed, but the people feeding them can't be trusted. No matter how patient, sweet, and safe you are, they will pee their beds every night for 10 years because they've learned even child molesters get grossed out by urine and will leave you alone that night. They will always talk about their next home, not because they don't love you, but because they know they will get past along to the next person as soon as they screw up. They don't think like me. We will see the well in two very different ways.
Will I have empathy for their view of the well? Even when I can't possibly see that different insane view? Because that's what having empathy is going to look like when you're dealing with kids that are in the system. And if I'm not a "well" thinking mind, I've got some work to do.