How empathy changes parents—A true story about a kid, a bicycle, and a mountain

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We already know that no two kids are the same. But it wasn’t until I took a kid’s place for a day that I began to truly appreciate what that means. The story I’m about to share is personal and true, and it might change the way you see your kids, and how you parent—both in terms of media parenting and otherwise. I’ve shared this story with parents in other contexts before, but I think it bears sharing again.

Off the coast of Washington State is one of my favorite places in the world—The San Juan Islands, a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean accessible only by ferry or airplane. One summer several years ago I volunteered with a boy scout troop near Portland, Oregon, and we took a group of boy scouts to the San Juan Islands for a weeklong bike trip.

We parked all of our transport cars in the city of Anacortes, on the mainland of Washington State. Which, incidentally is not too far from away Forks, WA, for those of you who love Forks. We boarded the ferry with just our bikes and one supply truck driven by a former Marine named Bill (names in this story have been changed to protect privacy). Our first stop was Lopez Island, a quiet island covered with lavender farms and towering Douglas Fir trees. As we departed the ferry that first day and began our short bike ride to the state park it quickly became apparent that one of the boys was struggling to keep up with everyone else. He soon fell far behind, and trailed into camp last—just in front of the supply truck. The boy’s name was Robert, and in my mind I silently resented him for being lazy and not keeping up with the group.

This pattern continued for the next several days. We would bike to the next viewpoint to watch whales or explore a lighthouse, and Robert would peddle in well after everyone else, trailed slowly by Bill and the supply truck. Robert was the one kid on the trip that came only after serious persuasion by us, and because his mother told him he had to.

Near the end of the trip we took a ferry to Orcas Island, a beautiful island shaped like a horseshoe, kind of like my other favorite place in the world—Ohio Stadium. The main feature of Orcas Island is Mt. Constitution, one of the most prominent features of the San Juan Islands. On top of Mt. Constitution is a tower from which you can see all the way from British Columbia Canada to the north and to Mt. Rainier on the other side of Seattle to the south. The road to the top of Mt. Constitution is only five miles long, but it rises 3,000 feet in those brief 5 miles. We came up with a brilliant challenge. We wanted to see if we could get to the top of the mountain without letting our feet touch the ground, without stopping on our bikes. So, early in the morning we all lined our bikes up at the base of the mountain and waited for the signal to start. Bill would be driving up and down the hill picking up stragglers. As for Robert, I’m not sure he even started up the hill. I think he just climbed into the supply truck with Bill, because I soon saw Bill taking Robert to the top of the mountain where they would wait for us. As they drove past I saw a huge grin on Robert’s face that seemed to scream “Sucker” to me, and as they disappeared around the next switchback I resented Robert for being so weak-willed and undetermined.

One by one, boys tired out and stopped, and soon enough Bill would come back down the mountain, pick them up, and drive them to the top, as if there was no shame in someone not reaching the top without stopping. Those of us who made it to the top, however, didn’t make it alone. As Bill drove past he offered words of encouragement, and seeing him drive up and down the hill that day gave us hope that if we stumbled, someone would be there to pick us up.

The next day we rode to San Juan Island, the most populated of the islands in the group. As we rode to our campground for the night I once again noticed Robert lagging behind. Fed up with his laziness, I decided to stop and wait for him. When he caught up to me he complained that no matter how hard he tried, his bike just couldn’t keep up with everyone. He was frustrated, and so was I. Wanting to prove to him that the cause of his slowness was him, and not the bike, I traded bikes with him. No less than 30 seconds later Robert had caught up with the rest of the group, and I fell further and further behind. I rolled into camp that night last. Even the supply truck made it there before me. I had discovered what Robert knew all along, and it took riding his bike to learn several valuable lessons. First, Robert’s bike was a piece of junk.

But more importantly, I learned that in life, we have all been given different bikes to ride. This applies especially to our children. Some kids ride the bike of physical or mental disability. Some kids ride the bike of a lack of self-confidence, of families plagued by under-employment, of loneliness, bullying, hurt, abuse, sickness, going to a new school for the first time, trouble with other kids at school, and pain in all its various forms. Some are athletic, some aren’t. Some are musically-inclined, while others are tone deaf. This experience, and Robert, taught me two other things that help me to this day. First, I learned that no matter what bike our children are asked to ride through in life, they will all fail to make it to the top of the mountain by themselves. Call the mountain what you will—completing the fourth grade, overcoming a learning disability, making friends, standing up to a bully…None of our children, not even the strongest and brightest, can make it to that destination without the help of a Bill, of someone willing to descend from the top of the mountain to pick them up and help them. Every one of our kids needs a champion, no matter the bike they are asked to ride up the hill. Every child needs someone to give encouragement, someone to help bear their heavy loads. As parents, we have the responsibility and ability to push them, pull them, and carry them up the hill. We’ve been up many of the hills that our children will have to climb, and they need us to share what we’ve learned.

Second, and perhaps equally important, riding Robert’s bike that day allowed me to see him for who he really was. He was just a kid struggling with a poorly engineered bike. And seeing him through this lens—through the lens of empathy—has done a few things for me. If I could go back to that trip I would ask Robert if he would trade bikes for the entire bike trip. It hurts me to know how much he struggled, and how those struggles made him feel about himself. I want to see the smile on his face again after he realized that he wasn’t weak, that he wasn’t a misfit, that the problem wasn’t with him, when he saw himself for who he really was. Seeing him this way sparked a motivation in me to serve him. And that’s really the crux of the message I want to share today. When we see our children for who they really are—as little people struggling to find their way in life—we want to be more compassionate, to spend more time with them, to get down on the floor and let them choose the activity. Parenting becomes a whole lot easier, and infinitely more enjoyable, when we step back and see children for who they really are. When we see them for who they really are, we’ll turn off the TV a bit more. We’ll go outside and shoot baskets with them. We’ll sit down and read them a book. Even when we don’t want to.

Parenting is hard. So I end this post with another brief story. A year or two ago we went camping with some friends. We had pitched our tents and were sitting around the campfire getting ready for bed. It must have been nearly 11pm when we saw a SUV pull up carrying one of our friends and about 9 kids, some hers, some not. This friend had to drive nearly 3 hours to get there that night, and I asked her why she even bothered. She told me: “Why should I deprive the kids of these opportunities just because I don’t want to do it.”

Seeing kids for who they really are changes everything.

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