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Lessons to take from Stanford sex assault case

I have two young boys. My husband and I are trying to raise them to be good, kind people. I bet Brock Turner's parents thought they were doing — had done — the same.

But reading Turner's father's letter asking for leniency from the judge who sentenced his son to six months for sexual assault, it makes one wonder: we're raising our children, but are our eyes wide open? What are we raising them for?

We're not parenting for empathy, according to Michele Borba, author of the new book UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.

“We need to push the pause button and say, ‘What kind of kid do I really want to raise?'” Borba says. “It's over very quickly; there's no rewind button.”

Dan Turner's letter to the judge about his son is an attempt to make others feel sad about what Brock is going through. (I mean, he can't eat steak. He's being locked away for “20 minutes of action”.) His father even blamed this “event” on Brock drinking too much because the older swimmers at school were. So in other words, the sexual assault wasn't his fault. Even the drinking wasn't his fault.

But this was a young man violating a young woman he didn't know. Behind a dumpster. He still shows no empathy, and after reading the letter his father wrote, you might get an idea why.

So how can parents use this horror as a lesson? Maybe they need to start by making sure they aren't making excuses for their children. Like the time that little Joe hit the neighbour kid and his dad said, “Well, he was provoked. Also, he had a lot of candy today. We need to stop feeding him so much sugar.”

Or when Jane cheated on a test and Mom said, “Well, that teacher just can't teach. Otherwise, she would have aced it. She's so smart.”

Did it grow into a time when he skipped school and got drunk and Mum and Dad said boys will be boys? Or did she shun a friend from the group to the point where the girl was depressed? What are we doing in our lives to raise children who are lacking in empathy, and always blaming the other guy for their missteps?

And in a question his parents never, ever expected would be in The Washington Post about their Olympic hopeful champion Stanford swimmer: how can we make sure to not raise the next Brock Turner?

“We define success as so narrow, as a GPA,” Borba says. “We're vaporising the other part of them; the humanness.”

Empathy can be taught, and should be, she says. So many of us think children are born with it or learn to be that way simply by living.

Sure, some are more wired for empathy than others. But parents need to teach empathy intentionally. “When your child walks in the door, how often do you say, ‘What caring thing did you do today?' Look at your photos.

“You're good with science fair trophies photos, but what shows caring?”

I've written a bit about the Harvard Making Caring Common project, and the studies they have been doing about children and kindness. In one study, about 80 per cent of the youth interviewed said their parents were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others.

The interviewees were also three times more likely to agree that “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I'm a caring community member in class and school”.

What is this doing to our children? What are they actually learning about themselves, or about love, kindness and even us?

Borba has some advice on how to awaken the empathy that lies dormant in our children, and perhaps ourselves.

We need to set aside “sacred unplugged time”, where we reclaim our conversations, Borba advises. And stop with all the activities, the pressure. Our children aren't learning the actual life skills they, and we, need them to.

“During summertime, get back to mud, sand and dirt. Our children are so structured boosting their Ivy League potential, they're losing [that skill of] just getting along with one another.

“Kids feel lonely but they are connected online. But they're not really connecting with a human being.”

Read books. No, really. Spend time with Charlotte's Web or Dumbo. Anything that shows empathy, accountability, love for another.

And just be kind, parents. To yourselves, to others, because your little ones are watching. So congrats to you all if they are off to an Ivy League school with a big old scholarship. But as we can see here, and in other cases, if that's all there is, that's really ... nothing.

Amy Joyce is the editor and a writer for On Parenting

Lack of empathy: Brock Turner, seen entering court with his mother last week, was imprisoned for six months for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. (Photograph by Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group/AP)

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Published June 08, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated June 08, 2016 at 7:32 am)

Lessons to take from Stanford sex assault case

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