Teaching Teens to Care

Category: Dad's Giving Back, Weekly Columns

The recent earthquake/tsunami disaster in Japan hit me very hard. The images and stories that were available so quickly were profoundly scary, real, and heart wrenching.  I immediately reflected on my gratitude for not suffering such a tragedy and remembered my own brush with death (written about in my “Gratitude” column) where I walked away from what could have been a deadly car crash.

At that time, the first thing I did was literally pat each limb of my body to see if they were still attached and not bleeding or broken. The second thing I did, after extricating myself from the crumbled vehicle, was look up to the sky and say, “Thank You.”  Shortly after returning home, I wrote the “Gratitude” column to immediately share the powerful feelings I had from that experience and my good fortune.

Many of those feelings returned the morning of the Japanese earthquake when I first saw the still photos in my Twitter stream. Those feelings continued shortly after I turned on the television and saw the incredible video images transmitted.  How could anyone not care, not sympathize, or not think about it? My older teen son was one who not only didn’t care, but made jokes, and very callous and immature “That’s Life” comments.

Yes, the frontal cortex of teens and young adults is not fully developed, but had I done such a bad job of parenting that my own son could be so heartless and flip? I do understand, all too well, that the center of the universe for most teens is Me, Me, Me!  I was certainly the center of my universe when I was a teen, as my mother incessantly reminded me.

The irony is that “incessantly” was the first word that came to mind when I thought of my teen years. That word clearly carries a negative tone and that is a perfect metaphor for my own teen’s reaction and my trying to impress upon him the gravity of what had occurred in Japan.

Yet again, my mom’s words come back to haunt me, when she used to say and almost mimic Professor Higgins (from “My Fair Lady”), with “Just You Wait!”  If it weren’t so painful, I would be laughing at how true her words were.  What she didn’t prepare me for, however, was the times I see myself in my sons and don’t like what I see.

To be fair, David, my younger son wasn’t as callous as his older brother. He just didn’t care and if I had allowed him to switch the channel that morning, he would’ve changed the channel to the Food Channel, which has become a current favorite (Go figure?).

So, where does empathy come from? Can it be taught? Can it be taught without religion?  Does a secular society or home teach compassion?  Can I ask any more questions?

I won’t take on the religion vs. secular discussion other than to say that a set-of-values, which most religions provide, is a stronger tool than mom or dad saying, “Because I say so.”

The answer, beyond religion in the home, is the same one I so often declare. Be a role model for the behavior that you want from your kids.  In the case of this current disaster, get involved with a charity that is supporting relief efforts in Japan.  Make sure that your charitable efforts are well known in your home.  Bring your younger kids with you when you go to a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving or take your used books to the library or shelter.

Hopefully, they will take some of that in.  Maybe not during their teens, but the stories I heard from my mom and my friends whose kids did survive their teen years, are encouraging.  My mom said, “I came back sometime in my twenties.” 

I say that our job as parents of teens is simply to keep them alive.  They won’t listen to much that we say so other than putting some firm boundaries on them, depending on their individual issues, risks, and behaviors, the only other thing we can do is be the best human being we can be and hope it does indeed rub off. But it doesn’t hurt to focus more on teaching teens to care.

My other belief, which isn’t really much of a comfort, is that parents can only do so much.  Many people are simply born with “heart” and “empathy” while many others are born with a “mean streak” and/or “selfish heart.”  This applies well beyond the teen years, as we all know very self-centered adults.  So, there is some luck in this equation (see my column from November, 2009 – “Raising Kids Takes a Lot of Luck”).

If you’re misfortunate enough to have a so-called “bad seed,” you can’t beat yourself up over it. Try your best and maybe some of it will sink in. I often thank God that my sons are just regularly annoying teens. If you’re fortunate to have one of those rare gems of a kid, thank God, be grateful, and enjoy your good fortune.


Get Bruce’s new book and Limited Edition (of 500) Poster, A Dad’s Point-of-View: We ARE Half the Equation at Amazon, iTunes, BN.com, or The Store here on our web site.


  • Anonymous

    Bruce you bring up a good point here. Do teens not care because of something we as parents are not doing or is it just because teenagers usually can’t see past the ends of their own noses?

    I am lucky that my daughter Avery (now 20) has always shown her empathetic side to the world. Like most other teenage girls she was concerned with which friends were not talking but she always saw that the world is so much bigger than she can comprehend.

    My son Sam (now 13) just became a teenager and I have yet to see how he will turn out. Here is hoping for the best!

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Well, Miriam, it sounds like Sam has a good model with his sister AND his Mom! That is where our kids learn the most – seeing what we do! And, they see everything!

  • Sid

    I fully understand “why” we need to teach our teens to care, but boy I remember how self-absorbed I was and this generation seems even worse! But, it’s worth attempting and you raise some excellent points, Bruce, as usual.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Great point Sid. Me, too!

  • Peacewonk

    Dear Bruce:
    I take issue with this paragraph…as an involved latina mother all my five kids were good seed from the day of their birth, and don’t dare to challenge me on this. If they would misbehave, I’d try to find the connection with some frustrated need: were they feeling under appreciated? was the connection with me weak or absent from their perspective? what else would I do with them in order to make them feel involved, supported and belonging to a good set of parents who loved them?
    Along the years, I have been watching the new generation, now my grandkids, and what I see is that the most affectionate of them are the ones who are open to the emotional connection with others…They need love and show that they need love, and don’t get ever completely satisfied with only an ipod; they want parental attention and connection. In short: they always care if we care.
    We have today to use extra diligency to send the message that emotional connection (“care”) can never be replaced by FB friends, superficial affections and weak links supported through technology. Nothing replaces a good hug when you need it….and nothing makes you feel as a “good seed” as a parent that hugs you frequently, with real arms and all.
    It shows your real emotions, your affection and that is what teaches them that you care…not talking about being engaged, and talking about feeling pain for others’ misery, but showing the sheer emotional pain we grown ups can feel.
    Of course, it embarrass them, at a superficial level, and will run to the TV to cover up their own reaction. The vibration of love is there, though….

    “If you’re misfortunate enough to have a so-called “bad seed,” you can’t beat yourself up over it. Try your best and maybe some of it will sink in.”

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      I’m not going to argue with a mom of FIVE! Good for you and well done!

  • http://creativeconflicts.com Peacewonk

    my brain is still working on the concept of the “so-called “bad seed kid.” In this April edition of the magazine More, I found the story by Jacquelyn Mitchard named “The Lost Boy” about her eldest son, Rob. He was so abusive that finally, she had to kick him out…only after that the kid realized that he was needing serious change in his life attitude. It’s easy to see where he went wrong, and how his mother covered up negative behavior up until she could not continue doing it….a lovely story about a “bad seed kid coming back to his good roots.”

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      I prefer those stories of “turn-around” rather than the negative ones. But, wouldn’t you agree that there are “good” and “bad” people? It’s not all environment and upbringing!

  • Azmomofmanyhats – Angie Mozilo

    This article really made me think. I do think there are some people (by people, I am referring to teens) who are wired to have less empathy and sympathy than others do. I also think that in the world of hyperrality that we live in, generations are becoming desensitized to real life tragedy – because of constant real world inundation through always available media, through fictional outlets that make “real world” situations a game, or from simply having too many other things going on in their lives and heads. I also think that there are those people who seem callous and uncaring because they just aren’t emotionally mature and equipped enough to process the magnitude of tragedies such as this.

    I agree with you that as parents, we can’t control exactly who are children become. We can lay a foundation, set out paths, and then example the tools they will need to make decisions wisely and with forethought. Once they are out of our nest, they are responsible for the actions and decisions they make. As parents, for a time, we can give them all the tools in their toolbox to make them, but it is up to them to take the box with them when they leave.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Well, we certainly do agree Angie – Excellent comment – thanks so very much!

  • Anonymous

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that we, as parents, have to be role models for our children. I think a certain amount of empathy IS learned. Some of it is naturally instilled in us. My love and compassion for animals, for example. Not everyone will feel that. But letting my son laugh at the misfortunes of others is something I hope I never do. He’s 4. I’ve got time.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Wise word Fadra! Thanks for stopping by. Curious your thoughts on my Music post – http://bit.ly/MusicGenGap

  • http://www.natsap.org/program_details.asp?id=185 Gail, Turning Winds

    This article really got me thinking. Sometimes we tend to forget the power we have over how our kids would react to situations like these. I’ll make sure to let my baby be mindful of other people’s needs and be sensitive enough to them. Thank you for reminding me of my other responsibilities towards teaching my kids to become good people in the future.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Yes, we must always be mindful of teaching our kids to care! Thanks for your comment Gail.

  • Pingback: Radio Show - Teaching Teens to Care | Bruce Sallan Radio Show | A Dad's Point Of View | www.BruceSallan.com()