one conversation at a time part 2 (or technically 3)

The greatest revolution in our generation is that of human beings, who by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.

~ William James

The background story …

Part One

Part Two

The following morning, I began to strategize in earnest. This wasn’t a conversation that I was going to try to wing. No, I needed a plan. I called Brooke’s inclusion specialist and asked for her help. She promised to send some books home in Brooke’s backpack. They would all be aimed at elementary schoolers, which wouldn’t be appropriate for neighborhoodgirl’s middle and high school siblings, but we agreed that they’d help us brainstorm. I thanked her profusely, hung up the phone and wondered where to go next. I sat for a minute feeling pretty lost. And then I did what I often do when I don’t know where else to go. I went inward.

What have Luau and I learned over the years about empathy? (Set a spell – this could take a while!)

Where does compassion come from?

Can it be taught?


What have we done to instill in our children an appreciation for the vast spectrum of human differences?

What conversations do we wish were taking place in every house on our block?

When I got home that night, I read through the books that the inclusion specialist had sent home. Katie sat down with me and peeked over my shoulder. “Ooh, I LOVE this book,” she exclaimed as she grabbed It’s O.K. to be Different, by Todd Parr. She’s always been a fan of his books, ever since she first brought home The Family Book back in kindergarten. It’s fabulous, but it wasn’t going to offer a lot of guidance for how to talk to the older kids.

I delved into the next book, then set it aside fairly quickly – sharply reminded that I have apparently developed a strong aversion to the word disability. That’s a post unto itself, but I decided that the books weren’t going to be of much help in crafting the conversation.

I searched back for the ‘book’ of sorts that I’d put together with Brooke’s former teacher when Brooke had just started kindergarten. A dear friend had approached me back then asking for help. His two sons are classmates of both of my girls and he wanted to figure out how best to talk to them about differences. I looked in vain back then for something age appropriate but came up dry and frustrated.

Deciding that I had to create something, I went to the fabulous teacher from Brooke’s integrated preschool and begged for her help. Together, we came up with this. And while it’s obviously written for the six and under set, I thought the general idea was pretty well transferable. And so I had the beginnings of a loosely formulated plan of action – a rough framework of the syllabus for Teaching Empathy 101.

We scheduled the meeting with neighborhoodgirl’sparents for the following Saturday evening, just before a school fundraising event. It was wedged-in by design. I needed an end time. I needed to know that if we were going down in flames, we’d have an out. And so, we had merely forty-five minutes to actually sit down together.

As we got dressed for the evening, Luau and I chatted. It was the first time all week that we’d actually been able to talk about any of it. “Ok, Hon,” I began, “do you have a plan?”

He gave me the patented husband-as-golden-retriever look. And just for good measure, he added,”Huh?”

I’d admit that the question had an element of sport in it. I’d tell you that I knew damned well that he didn’t have a plan but that I asked the question anyway just to make it clear that I’d been working on this all week and that at least one of us had done the homework. But that wouldn’t have been nice. It would have been downright childish. And I certainly would never, um, ever do something like that to my dear husband. So, nothing to see here. Moving on …

“All right, Babe. So here’s what I’m thinking,” I said. I ran through my plan and asked if he was comfortable with it. He was. I asked if he felt there was anything that needed to be added. He didn’t. I told him I’d be happy to lead off. He said, “Huh?” We decided I’d lead off.

We were a few minutes late. Try as I might these days, I seem to be incapable of making it out of the house on time. Late is my new early. As we walked to the door I suddenly wondered if we should have brought something. A bottle of wine? Flowers? I wondered if Emily Post has anything on the topic. When headed to a neighbor’s home with the weight of the world on one’s shoulders, it’s always best to bring …. guest soap? We rang the door empty-handed.

They came to the door together and invited us in. We shared some pleasantries – we complimented their beautiful home and talked a bit about how funny it is that we live so close and neither of us had ever been inside the other’s home. But time was short, so we quickly got down to business.

“So,” I ventured, “Neighborhoodgirl’smom, you had mentioned on the phone that you’d like us to talk about some suggestions for talking to your kids. We thought maybe we could share some of the ideas that we’ve found most helpful over the years.” I was nervous about sounding lecture-y. I thought sharing sounded a lot better then telling.

Both she and her husband nodded eagerly. Before that evening I’d never shared more than a wave with the husband, but I decided within a minute and a half that I liked him. He had an easy, open smile and an endearing habit of nodding as I spoke.

I talked a little bit about the book that Jen and I had created. Its objective, I explained, was to build empathy. To begin the process of getting our kids to think about difference in the context of their own lives, I’d found that the best method is to start with THEMSELVES and then work their way out.

We talked about the fact that every one of us has unique strengths and challenges. That each of us has traits that make us similar to one crowd while standing out in another. I suggested starting the conversation by asking their children to sit down and make a list of the things they felt that they were particularly good at and then to follow up with areas of challenge. Then I suggested doing the same with traits that made them the same as their friends and traits that made them different. Make a list. Write it down. Engage them in the process.

With that list in hand, talk to them about how those differences and challenges make them feel. If your child says they are great at math but they read at a much slower pace than many of their friends, ask them how they would like their friends to react. Would they want their friends to tease them? Call them a slow poke? Point and laugh? How would those reactions make them feel?

Would they like their friends to quietly ask if they’d like help? Or would they prefer that their friends simply go about their own work and leave them to theirs, not calling attention to something that might make them uncomfortable?

Every child will have a different answer, of course. My friend’s son had focused on his food allergies. He couldn’t eat what his friends were eating and nearly always had his own food with him. My friend asked his son how that made him feel – being different from his friends. Did he like it when they asked about his food? Did he prefer to fly under the radar unnoticed? Was it hard to feel different from his friends? How did it make him feel?

And what about their friends’ differences? When they notice that a friend has challenges, how might they respond to them? How might their reactions make their friends feel?

Over the years, I have discovered that I learn best from the inside out. That while we may need to seek information from the outside, humanity is to be found on the inside. Without truly internalizing this stuff, it floats somewhere just outside of our grasp – rote rather than real. Compassion might have to be felt not taught, but we can teach our children where to find it within themselves.

Neighborhoodgirl’sparents were incredibly receptive. They asked wonderful questions and expanded on our ideas. They promised to talk to their children. They said that they’d like to have BOTH of our girls over – soon. They let us know that they’d like us to feel comfortable addressing their daughter directly should we choose to in the future. They told us that we had their full permission to talk to her should anything similar ever happen again.

We had to run to make it to the fundraiser. I’d thought I’d be relieved to have to leave, but I was actually somewhat disappointed that a great conversation was ending. I felt like we’d made new friends.

As we walked to the car, I looked at Luau and remembered his words. “Well then that’s exactly what we’ll do.”

I guess we did.

Being a mom – particularly this kind of mom – has pushed me far past my comfort zone. It’s taken me to some beautiful places and to some pretty ugly places. It’s escorted me to the darkest anger and the purest love. It’s forced me to confront not just the rest of the world’s prejudices and insecurities, but my own. It’s shown me what really matters and what really, really doesn’t. And it’s reminded me how similar we all really are.

We all want our children to be safe and healthy and happy. And if we work together – if we lead our children by example and show them what it means to not just tolerate but to celebrate one another – warts and all – I’m convinced we can help with the happy.

So maybe we didn’t bring guest soaps, but you know – I’m pretty sure that we didn’t show up empty-handed.

Candle from Getty Images

41 thoughts on “one conversation at a time part 2 (or technically 3)

  1. Good for you Jess. I couldn’t agree more. I found myself having a similar “talk” with a good friend whose son is in class with mine. Though she and I have been friends a long while, our boys have never “clicked.” Now her son is asking questions. So she came to me for advice. “What should I tell him?” she asked me. And I thought of you. I said, “Tell him the truth.”

  2. Actually we all know the book has been written in these posts. You merely need to publish the first volume. I’ll be the first one on line to buy it but I assure you, the line will be long.

    Love you,

  3. so much gold here.

    what struck me about looking for the right book is that…there is no book for this stuff…


    even though I am dazzled by you and so proud of you

    may i admit

    that it still makes me sad that we as parents of these special, wonderful kids

    have to work so damned hard

    all the time.

  4. it’s the brooke effect. she makes everyone around her stronger, more aware of the world, more cautious with what words they use. she’s impacted you guys, you’re now impacting others. the kendall effect: a very good thing.

  5. When there isn’t “the book,” one must write it. That is exactly what you have done. I love the principle that we all learn from the inside out. Now I have to figure out how to apply that one in my own life.

  6. My daughter is 11 now, but we still love “My Friend with Autism” by Beverly Bishop. It’s has great kid-size dialogue to share with children and even adults.
    My typical 6 year old takes all of these things so matter-of-fact, it helps me understand how other children perceive her.
    Like yesterday while perusing the school book faire:

    “Oh yea, ‘A’ won’t like this noisy toy, her ears are so strong”

  7. Wonderful! You are so amazing to be so well prepped for this talk. I am learning so much that I will use in the near future to start up a conversation with my neighbor whose son isn’t always nice to mine. I haven’t known where to start and I think you’ve given me a starting place–for that I thank you!

    • joe – thanks for this. what a great reframe – no, honey, i wasn’t throwing you under the bus, it was a public service announcement! 🙂

      • oh no I didn’t feel like you were throwing me under the bus. Moreso giving me my own inclusion group 🙂

        There were many many good things from the post. I probably shouldn’t have singled out just one.

        Like I said before, thanks so much for your blog. it is great…

  8. “Compassion might have to be felt not taught, but we can teach our children where to find it within themselves.” So true.
    I want to be like you when I’m all grow-ed up.

  9. One ripple at a time, we are reaching out. And making the world a better place for our children. Like Tanya’s conversation with the high school girls over at Teen Autism, your conversation was beyond your comfort zone and you pushed yourself. Bravo, girl, bravo! You set the example of how to change the world … not through violence, not through anger … but one person at a time, one family at a time, one school at a time … You are a hero.

  10. I love what LUAU wrote but I would modify the “S” to be for Mos”e”s, as you lead us out of the desert to the promised land of “understanding and acceptance”.
    You have become such a joy to behold.

  11. I love what LUAU wrote but I would modify the “S” to be for Mo”s”es, as you lead us out of the desert to the promised land of “understanding and acceptance”.
    You have become such a joy to behold.

  12. Well. I guess I know what we’re doing at the next Circle of Friends group! Seriously Jess. This is soooo great. You are brilliant.


    “Well then that’s exactly what we’ll do.”

    I have a Golden Retriever too. Good thing they are so damned cute.

  13. So many words of wisdom here – some things I have recently discovered myself, but its reassuring to “see” someone else speak my thoughts. You validate not only our children, but ourselves. Thanks Jess 🙂

  14. You did it, and you did it good. One part that really resonated with me was about being pushed “far past my comfort zone.” We definitely get outside of our comfort zones – we learn, we grow, we teach others. Not just for our amazing kids, but because of them. And you, my friend, constantly inspire me.

  15. “I suggested starting the conversation by asking their children to sit down and make a list of the things they felt that they were particularly good at and then to follow up with areas of challenge.”

    There is such wisdom in the notion of starting from the inside and working out.

    What a super idea and a perfect way to teach empathy. I’m going to remember this and apply it in our corner of the world. Thanks!

  16. Wow, I read this last night and again right now and I know I will read it several more times so that I fully receive each gift that it offers. There are so many thoughts swirling in head but, for now, I will offer only a few:

    One – I have given a lot of thought to your Inclusion Committee at the girl’s school in recent weeks. We have a school newsletter and a reference to a special education committee caught my eye. I did not even know we had one and I have been wrestling with contacting them and pitching our own Inclusion Committee. But what could I add as a parent with no direct experience with a special needs child and would my overture be welcomed? I will find the answer myself but your words above have given me a little more bravery and tools. The exercise you describe about having the children write lists etc., is something I can concretely suggest as a possible school-wide activity for each classroom. The focus on teaching empathy and the benefits it would bring to all of the children and adults involved might be something everyone could rally around. I have been quiety collecting ideas and this a really great one. Thank you.

    Two – Do you remember the post about the person who asked you what the “upside” is from Brooke having autism. I am not sure that was his exact word but that is how my heart remembers it. This paragraph brought me squarely back to that post:

    “Being a mom – particularly this kind of mom – has pushed me far past my comfort zone. It’s taken me to some beautiful places and to some pretty ugly places. It’s escorted me to the darkest anger and the purest love. It’s forced me to confront not just the rest of the world’s prejudices and insecurities, but my own. It’s shown me what really matters and what really, really doesn’t. And it’s reminded me how similar we all really are.”

    This is particularly moving paragraph in the midst of an overwhelmningly insightful and instructive post.

    Lastly (for now) – I am so proud of you for so many reasons but this post highlights the amazing way you communicate with people. You are teaching and inspiring empathy with every word you speak and write. The way you frame conversations, respond to people and invite people to share of themselves is so inspiring to me. You, my dear, beautiful, brilliant friend-for-life, draw out the very best in people and I am so proud of you for that.

    Love, love and more love – April

    • “But what could I add as a parent with no direct experience with a special needs child and would my overture be welcomed?”

      oh, april – you never, ever cease to amaze and astound me with the depth of your compassion, generosity and pure friendship.

      speak from the heart. tell them why you’re there. you, my dear – so true in spirit and so giving of yourself (not to mention fabulously diplomatic) – will ALWAYS be welcomed.

      let me know if i can help along the way.

      you are a treasure.

  17. Jess, all of your blog entries strike such a resonating chord…but this one was soooooo amazing, awe inspiring and powerful. I’ve re-read it several times and printed off your book. What a gift! Thank you. Thank you. Thank YOU!

    PS. Strong ears…LOVE IT!

  18. Bravo! Ive always found it easier explaining differences to children rather than adults. You know your “book” helped me this summer when he started a new daycare. I agree with everyone else, you should publish it! I know a lot of people that would buy it, myself included. Things like that are so basic but SO helpful! Thanks again for all you do.

  19. Other than “where the hell where you when my son was in kindergarten and I ruined his life by failing miserably at what you just front of his entire class and teacher”
    all I have to say is you rock my clock.

  20. (Sorry, this comment got really long!)

    It’s the first day of school here, and I’ve spent most of the morning reading your blog. The first post I ever read was the one about your reaction to the terms “gifted and talented”, that I clearly overreacted to. Had I only known the depths of your wisdom, compassion, grace and respect.

    I have spent so much time just trying to figure out how to bring peace to the world, and here you are doing it, just by being who you are. It’s taken me years of reading, thinking, discussing, and writing (not always in that order!), to only recently finally understand that, paraphrasing you, “To begin the process of getting [people] to [live peacefully with others], the best method is to start with THEMSELVES and then work their way out.” I think that a true, lasting peace can only occur if all people each become fully aware of themselves and understand why they do what they do and why they think what they think, so that they have a basis for developing compassion toward *all* others, not just the ones who are alike in some superficial way. One of the most profound books I’ve ever read is called The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson, a memoir of her conversion to Islam and living Egypt after having grown up in the US. She has so many extraordinary insights into the reasons differences are troubling to people, but the one I think is the most profound is this one: “Jo and I were never integrated into the neighborhood, and I doubt we could have been if we lived there for decades. But as time went by our neighbors passed from open hostility to grudging tolerance. Occasionally they would even forget themselves and be kind, because it was far more usual for them to be kind; they were kind to one another, and the abrupt chilly way they treated (or avoided) Jo and me is a mark of how much we must have frightened them. When I describe our strange relationship with our neighbors to other Americans, I ask them to imagine two single, sari-clad, Bengali-speaking women of obscure purpose setting up shop in small-town Oklahoma. It’s the sort of situation that might never result in harmony, but one should not take that failure as a symbol of an imagined greater failure; it does not mean that there is no hope for understanding. All it means is that in close quarters, we overthink, second-guessing our own innate assumption of common humanness, which, I now think, boils down to a common need for kindness. We are cruelest to those who remind us of our capacity for cruelness. It was this that made Jo’s and my relationship with our neighbors so bitter: it was clear that they did not like who they became around us.
    I have seen the reverse as well: westerners from the most liberal backgrounds, whose beliefs are tolerant and broad-minded, find themselves unable to function in a society that requires them to live so conservatively and in such limited circumstances. They are forced to resort to the ruling-race social tactics they hate in order to get by, and then hate the Egyptians for making them hate themselves. This is the heart of the clash of civilizations: not the hatred of the Other, but the self-hatred produced by the Other. This is what makes hatred so easy to propagate, and so difficult to counter even for those who question its authenticity.”

    We can’t recognize what we have in common with someone else, if we don’t realize that it exists within us. And, as Wilson said, what we all have in common is the need for kindness.

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