“Mama, Why Are the Kids Not Wearing Clothes?” How We Re-learn Empathy from Our Children

Social Commentary

“Mama, Why Are the Kids Not Wearing Clothes?” How We Re-learn Empathy from Our Children

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

W

e are waiting at a traffic signal in an Uber, tired from an early morning train journey and desperate to beat the relentless Bangalore traffic and get home. My almost six-year-old, is leaning against me. I see a beggar limping toward our car and shut my eyes, hoping he will just pass by but within a few seconds I can hear him tapping on the window. 

After two years of renouncing the NRI life and bustling about in the wonderfully cosmopolitan yet harsh city that is Bangalore, I have successfully mastered the art of numbing myself to the countless miseries that present themselves every time I step out of my home. Somehow, I am now able to see, digest, and walk on without letting the burdens of empathy settle in my heart; the dishevelled and drunk man sleeping on the pavement stinking of dried vomit, the starving dog panting for water and refusing to just die, the troubled baby wailing to deaf ears at a construction site while people around her are too busy building someone else’s home.

The tapping stops and he moves on leaving me to my bubble of thoughts on whether to cook or order lunch, how to rate the driver whose air conditioner is blasting hot air. My daughter has shifted her weight away from me and is staring outside. She suddenly shouts, “Mama! That man has only one arm and leg!” 

The car is moving, thanks to a green signal and I turn to see him hobbling away like an ungraceful flamingo toward the divider. I feel a frisson of shame at myself along with an explosive pride at the pain in her voice. She asks me a dozen questions; eager to understand how someone can move around with just one set of limbs, what he eats and how he survives. I try to answer as best as I possibly can, keeping a balance between truth and assurance. Finally she settles into a disturbed silence, unconvinced by my explanations. 

There have been several instances where she has raised questions that are infinitely bigger than her tiny self. “Why isn’t anyone cleaning this dirty road?”, “Why aren’t those kids wearing any clothes?”, “Why can’t we buy them food?”, “Why don’t you give all the beggars money?” 

Once while sitting at a park bench, I watched a group of children trying to help an injured moth by searching for its broken wing.

As impatient as I am with children, I am always amazed by their eagerness to discover lessons that aren’t taught in classrooms. Once while sitting at a park bench, I watched a group of them trying to help an injured moth by searching for its broken wing. It was touching to see them scuttle about excitedly, determined to watch him fly. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it wouldn’t survive.

I’ve read stories and watched videos of children engaging in phenomenal acts of kindness; distributing lemonade to strangers on a hot day, baking cupcakes to raise money to help an animal shelter, vowing to give up meat when they learn the truth about animal slaughter. They are not bogged down by cynicism or the mantra that adults often repeat as an excuse to do nothing – This world is a mess. 

My daughter is weird, wild, and wonderful. But above all it is her compassionate curiosity that makes me love her not because I have to but as a form of redemption. She is her own person with unfettered emotions, refusing to be stenciled by our expectations. 

In the award-winning Tamil short-film Dharmam , the opening scene shows a school boy dressed up as a beggar for a fancy dress costume show. Later, the same father who preps him to repeat the words, “I beg because I’m poor” beats up an old beggar who he thinks is stealing from his son. In a span of six minutes, director Madonne Ashwin portrays the impact that adult apathy and hypocrisy have on an impressionable child. Dharmam is inspiring because it shows that while children watch what we say and do, they also have the power to form their own perspectives. 

Children are not bogged down by cynicism or the mantra that adults often repeat as an excuse to do nothing – This world is a mess.

Despite all the moral science chapters taught in school and Panchatantra stories and Amar Chitra Katha comics that fascinated me with their attempts to intersperse entertainment with essential values, it was real-life experiences that shaped my capacity to feel. When I saw construction workers toiling in the cruel Dubai heat, I felt pangs of guilt at their plight and my privilege. Whenever we came to India on our annual breaks, I hated eating at restaurants where children my age were mopping floors and clearing plates. 

However, being a sensitive human being is exhausting. As my personal baggage grew and I could barely manage my own dysfunctional life. I wanted to be stronger, to not be swept away by the weary feeling of seeing elements of a damaged world, to be selfish enough to care only about myself and the people I loved so I could be happier. So I resolved to turn away as a form of self-preservation. 

I’ve slowly morphed into a drone, thinking more than feeling, wandering about with daily to-do lists, trying to stay sane and be successful (whatever that means). It’s easier for me to sit at my laptop and read about the country’s water crisis than listen to my maid complain about how long she had to stand at the communal tap to fill two buckets. It’s more convenient to rant about equal pay on social media than give some thought to the long working hours of the building watchman. I spend more on trying to form an ideology as it’s important to be seen as a person who gives a crap, rather than actually follow that ideology.

But through all this, my daughter’s troubled face haunts me because I can’t remember the last time I felt like she did in that moment. Somewhere along the way I decided that empathy was making me weaker, distracting me from the process of finding contentment.

Perhaps that’s the biggest case for raising children, to enable us to learn what we have forgotten over time – how to observe and care.

I love the part in the movie The Constant Gardener where Tessa and her husband, Justin, are driving through crowded streets in Africa and she wants to give a poor woman holding a baby and her brother a ride. While Justin tells her that there are millions of people who need help, Tessa replies, “Yes, but these are three people that WE can help now.” 

My daughter and her questions constantly remind me that this is what we sometimes need to do – forget about the big problems and look at the little ways in which we can offer compassion, not pity. The least I can do is smile at the building watchman that could help him feel acknowledged, offer water to the delivery guy at my doorstep, give my maid the days off when she has her period, and maybe sometimes hand out a loaf of bread from my shopping bag to the man tapping at the car window.    

I want to take a few steps back and reconnect with the parts of me that refused to be indifferent. I don’t want to casually say “But that’s life” and move on. 

Perhaps that’s the biggest case for raising children, to enable us to learn what we have forgotten over time – how to observe and care. A lot is written on how parents should teach their children empathy, but in an apathetic world it’s often the children who remind us to give and love.

I can’t save the world alone but sometimes not looking away is a good enough place to start.

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