Among many other associated worries, there are twin fears in becoming a patent: 1. How will the world treat your child, and 2. How will your child treat the world. Clearly, in our situation, #1 is something we worry about quite a bit, but #2 is right up there. How do you teach true compassion? Not just "be nice or you'll be punished, by me or the supernatural" but teach them to want it for its own sake? How do you teach a child to feel and want to feel the pain they caused in, say, a brother when they, say, take their favorite toy? The rewards of empathy, sacrifice and the golden rule can be subtle and the paths of causation complicated (for adults, let alone a 5-year-old).
Given all that, one of my greatest fears is to raise a man who doesn't give a damn.
When our boys were about two, I remember our dogs getting in a little fight, and Alan ran in between them trying to protect the the littler, older pet from the bully, with genuine distress on his little face. After I grabbed him for fear he'd get bit, I choked up, even at that small bit of evidence, just at the possibility that he was showing concern for something else.
But I've more evidence to go on than that. (The following may come off as blatant parental bragging, as is intended ;-).)
Last year an organization I volunteer with was doing a needs drive for refugee families. I wanted our boys to donate some of their unused toys and so thought up this whole complicated speech on charity on my way home from work. Once home I sat the boys down and started telling them about the children in these families, how they had to leave their homes, and how they had next to nothing. I hardly finished my first sentence when Brian asked me if they had any toys. I swelled with anticipation and said no. Then they asked me if they could give some of their toys. While I tried to keep from crying, they started going though their toy chest. And sure, a couple toys of what they selected weren't the best, and they kept their favorites, but a lot of refugee kids are playing with their toys today.
As for today... Our boys will soon have their birthday party. One school friend of theirs always asks for food donations instead of gifts for his birthday and we were talking about it. I was against such a thing, remembering my birthdays full of gifts too fondly. I admittedly kind of thought it was the parents imposing on their children too much. But from discussing that friend's party the topic came up and, once again, our boys thought of those refugee kids on their own (the pictures I took of them with our boys' toys last year made quite an impression). This time, though and maybe I was wrong here, I tried in two separate family discussions to talk them out of it. "You understand that your friends won't bring you any toys, right?" But they were set and the invitations went out.
Of course they'll still get a small ransom in toys from us, grandparents, aunts and such--plus a trip to Lego Land right after their dads get married, again...--but they wanted to give up this bit from friends. The idea of those other kids with toys where once they had none gave them more pleasure.
Now don't get me wrong. Our boys will fight; they have, at times, tried to hurt another's feelings; they'll simply be as selfish as any 5-year-old. If you get between a hungry Alan and mac-and-cheese you might even get bit, though purely by accident.
But there's that other piece to them. We didn't put it there; I can't take any credit. They came with that spark of empathy and charity as far as I can tell. I'm just absolutely grateful for it, though, to be able to worry less and less about the #2 fear up there, to have these hopeful hints of the men they'll become.
It will soon be 6 years since we carried them into their nursery, so tiny and packed with potential. They've been six of the shortest years of my life, the most complicated years of my life, the absolutely best years of my life. They've grown into little boys, unfolded their personalities. Yes, yes, yes, we've laughed and cried and all that good stuff; I know I'm getting too sappy when I'm tearing up at my keyboard :-). I just want to write, have it known and in digital stone, I'm proud of them.