This week, the photo of NYPD Officer Larry DePrimo giving a homeless man a pair of new winter boots inspired so many comments, likes, tweets and shares on Facebook and Twitter that he ended up on The Today Show this morning. If you haven’t heard the story already, this young police officer noticed a homeless man on the sidewalk with no shoes in bitterly cold New York weather. DiPrimo used his own money to buy the man a pair of new boots. (The store gave Officer DePrimo a discount when they learned what he was doing.) “I really didn’t think about the money,” he said. Arizona Tourist Jennifer Foster noticed what was happening, was reminded of a similar kindness her father had done for someone as a police officer in Phoenix, and she snapped a photo. She sent it, along with a message of appreciation, to the New York Police Department. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Last night at the dinner table, my husband, son and I talked about this story, about how compassionate this officer was and how what he did showed true kindness. We asked each other, “What would you do if you saw a homeless person with no shoes in the freezing cold?”
Let’s face it, teaching empathy to kids isn’t always easy. Although as parents we may think they should know innately what it means to stand in someone else’s shoes, empathy is actually a quality that develops over time for most people. James Lehman once humorously said that “It often seems that teen agers have all the empathy of crocodiles,” and it can certainly feel that way when your child is constantly leaving messes around the house, picking on their siblings, or being disrespectful to you.
That’s where I think these conversations — and these random acts of kindness — come in. Talking to your child about stories like this one and asking “What would you do?” is a good way to start the ball rolling and just get them thinking about how other people might be feeling. Going out of your way to be kind or help others lets your child know that it’s important to you — and is one of the most valuable things you can teach your kids, in my opinion.
Why is it so important? I believe most good choices flow from empathy: The choice to not bully someone. The choice to not hit your sister. The choice to sit with another student at school who seems down. The choice to help someone by getting them a pair of warm boots. The fact is, it’s very hard to be cruel or unkind when you’re able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine for a moment how they’re feeling.
So one night before Thanksgiving, I dragged my son with me to pick out food for a dinner for needy families in our area — people who couldn’t afford the meal otherwise. At first Alex said he wanted to stay home, but when we got to the supermarket, his eyes lit up as we began choosing things for another family’s table. (He even insisted on getting the biggest turkey he could find and some extra appetizers and drinks, although I’m not sure Gatorade is a traditional Thanksgiving beverage.)
Slowly, (fingers crossed) the message is sinking in.
And the answer to the question last night, “Would you help this man?”
“Of course,” my son replied, without skipping a beat. “What else would I do?”
(One of those rare moments as a parent where you smile and nod but wish you could high-five your spouse.)
Elisabeth Wilkins is the mother of one son and the editor of Empowering Parents. She and her family live in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.