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Brotherly Love: What Sparked This Act of Compassion in My Son

Emily Cherkin

Published on: March 21, 2014

brother and sister from start empathy blog post emily cherkinThere are many parenting moments that have brought me to tears, and each for a variety of reasons: giving birth, stepping barefoot on a LEGO, feeling overwhelmed and exhausted and at my wit's end, and watching my children interact with each other. My husband and I have joked that while there will likely be something we did as parents that will send our kids to therapy down the road, one thing we both feel proud of is our children's relationship to each other. We are not quite sure how, but we are doing something right.

Let me clarify: Their relationship is far from perfect, but perfection is not the goal. The goal is a realization that we are each a member of a four-person team, and that we have to keep our eye out for each other. The goal is that we show love and ask for what we need and use our words and don't hit. The goal is that when we make mistakes, we try to make things right again.

We forgive. We learn. We grow.

This past summer we spent two weeks on the East Coast visiting Ben's family. Many of those days were spent near a beautiful beach in a darling town complete with a boardwalk and all the ice cream stores, candy shops, restaurants and arcades that come with it. My Pacific Northwest born-and-bred children were enthralled. They had never seen a boardwalk, eaten crabs (or been allowed to hit something at the dinner table with a hammer!), swam in the Atlantic Ocean, or ridden on so many kid-friendly ticketed rides in their life. By the end of two weeks, they were sun-kissed and exhausted.

For our last night, we made one final trip to Funland, where the little boats, fire engines and airplane rides awaited. Max and Sylvie were giddy with excitement. In the center of the little amusement park stood a ride yet untried by our kids. I had hesitated previously because it seemed to go pretty fast. But Sylvie is a bit of an adrenaline-junkie, and Max loves roller coasters, so I asked if they wanted to give it a try. They enthusiastically agreed.

Like most of the rides in this very kid-friendly area, it was a set of vehicles (in this case, cars) that followed a circular track that crested over little hills. Speed picked up as the ride progressed, and then it stopped suddenly and reversed, picking up speed again as it zoomed up and down and around and around the track. Max and Sylvie were game. We watched them select a little red VW Bug with a blue windshield, observed as the attendant switched Max (the heavier person) to the outside of the car, and readied our camera.

The ride began. Sylvie's face radiated joy as their little car picked up speed. She clung to the handlebar and squealed with glee, buckled in safely next to her brother. The cars moved faster. On the next rotation, Sylvie seemed a little less sure, a little more wary. I watched nervously, unable to do much but offer shouts of encouragement that disappeared behind the clattering of the cars.

The next time around, Sylvie's eyes widened. The cars moved faster. We continued to offer muted words of comfort as the noise of the rattling cars and the roaring motor increased. Ben snapped away on the camera. The third time around I could tell Sylvie was no longer having fun. Tears poured down her cheeks, and her mouth gaped open in a terrified scream. I felt completely helpless. She could see me on each rotation, but there was absolutely nothing I could do until the ride stopped.

I felt frozen where I stood. All the joys and sorrows of parenting flew past me in the changing flip-book expressions of Sylvie's tiny face. As I watched her joy deteriorate into terror, I berated myself. This was my fault. I should not have suggested this ride.

How could I do this? What kind of a mother would put her child through this? I should have known better.

arms holding hands brother sister siblings love empathyAnd as I began my tumble into self-doubt, I noticed something. Max, initially having a wonderful time on the ride, pretending to be a race car driver zooming along a track, had realized Sylvie's change of mood. He turned his face toward her, read her expression and saw her fear. He talked to her, comforting her: "It's OK, Sylvie. It's OK." She leaned into him. He drew her closer and placed his right arm around her shaking shoulders. In this embrace, he forgot the speed of the ride or the roar of the imaginary crowd at the race track. In this gesture, he put aside his expectations to concentrate on taking care of his frightened little sister. And he held her like that, for all the remaining rotations of the ride, until finally, it slowed to a crawl and then stopped.

In that moment between the last lurch of the car and the recognition that the ride had ended, Max kept his arm around Sylvie, and tears choked my throat. Fumbling toward them, oblivious to the other parents and children around me, I grabbed at my children, both of them. Simultaneously I hugged Sylvie, who was finally calm, and whispered to Max, over and over, "I love you so much, I love you so much. You just knew. You just knew what to do. Thank you, thank you."

I do not know what caused Max in the middle of that ride to show his sister such empathy. It was certainly not because Ben and I were instructing him to do so — he could not hear us over the roar of the engines. Perhaps something within him stirred when he heard Sylvie's cries. Perhaps it was part of his temperament. Perhaps it is because Ben and I have tried to establish "take care of each other" as an important value in our family. Whatever it was that drove Max to act empathically that day, it will forever be one of my most favorite tear-filled moments in parenting.

Originally posted at StartEmpathy

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