Not long ago, I wrote about a memorable moment shared with my 9-year old daughter, Kaelyn, who revealed to me in a wonderfully subtle way, her strong sense of empathy and compassion. I feel that the ability to recognize and share feelings such as sadness or happiness being experienced by others is one of the most important qualities an individual can possess. Consequently, I also believe it’s one of the most important attributes for parents to nurture in our children.
Like all things, given a bit of purposeful attention, compassion has the power to grow and evolve. What begins as a simple feeling inside of a child’s heart can morph into a desire to help others. That desire can turn into an idea. And that idea can blossom into acts that transform lives for the better.
My 12-year old daughter, Kendall, recently provided a great example of how a strong sense of empathy can mature into something greater over time.
Kendall is a sweet, kind, intelligent girl. Like her mom, she’s beautiful with a gorgeous smile and dimples. Everyone who meets her seems naturally drawn to her (Yes– I am a “Doting Dad” and don’t apologize for it! I may ask to be excused for this, but will never say I’m sorry for it!). Although people have always enjoyed engaging with Kendall, she herself has always been relatively shy and quiet, and never one to dominate socially.
Last year, Kendall entered 6th grade and that transition proved challenging for her.
Most parents understand the anxiety a child faces when moving from elementary school to middle school. All of a sudden, our children are no longer being coddled. They’re getting up at the crack of dawn, being thrown together with kids from other schools. Their bodies are changing. They have class schedules and lockers. And for 6th graders, well, they’re at the very bottom of the totem pole and perhaps their greatest wish is simply that no 7th or 8th grader will even notice them at all. They’re just trying not to get run over during the stampede between classes.
As much as Kendall loves school and being with her friends, she struggled against a merciless battle with anxiety last year. She was continually plagued with fits of nausea. She would throw up– often several times a day, moving back and forth from class to the clinic. Often, she would have to come home. She missed parts of over 60 days during the year! Most heart-wrenching, Kendall didn’t even understand what was happening to her. She was excited about 6th grade and desperately desired to be at school with her friends! That excitement was simply morphing into anxiety.
Fortunately, we are blessed to live in an incredible school district with some outstanding administrators and teachers, as well as an awesome community of supportive friends and family. Our local school officials provided us with heartfelt support, helping monitor Kendall and helping her stay current with her classwork. Similarly, our friends reached out to help any way they could.
Eventually, Kendall began to overcome her anxiety. Her bad mornings and clinic visits became more spread out, her self-confidence started to grow and by the third quarter of the year, she seemed to hit her stride and put those anxious feelings behind her.
Kendall’s fierce battle with –and ultimately, victory– over severe anxiety was no secret in our social circles. So it was not surprising when we began to get inquiries from other parents about our experience. Apparently, several other children in our local community were having similar issues and their parents wanted to learn more about how Kendall had overcome her problems. They wondered if she might agree to speak with their children about her own experiences, peer-to-peer. Of course, Kendall understood and happily obliged.
Shortly thereafter, a 5th-grade teacher approached us with a similar request, this time asking if Kendall would speak to her entire class. And once again, she obliged cheerfully.
Finally, after the third request from yet another teacher, Kendall came up with an idea: What if she created a support program for any and all new 6th graders who might be experiencing anxiety over the daunting transition into middle school?
She more than anyone understood these challenges and how to deal with them. And so, “Ask Me Anything” was born. Kendall came up with the idea for the peer-to-peer program and the name. She thought through the mission, goals and structure of the organization, and then created a powerpoint to present her idea for it to her school.
“Ask Me Anything” is beautifully simple and straightforward. If a child is having difficulty with anxiety for any reason, they can call on Kendall or another volunteer peer mentor, boy or girl (Kendall has since recruited some of her friends to assist), to simply reach out to that child– to speak with them, be a friendly face in the hall, help set their expectations, and basically provide encouragement from a friendly, “wise elder”– one who has lived through the experience.
The school has since called upon Kendall to assist three times this year, both with individual students and larger groups. And not just sixth graders but also students transferring in from outside school districts. All the while, true to the universal, reciprocal nature of giving and sharing, Kendall’s own self-confidence has continued to blossom.
I am sharing Kendall’s powerpoint here. It is an easy program to duplicate and apply at any school and doesn’t require that that peer volunteers have to had to suffer from anxiety, themselves. It’s simply about being on-call to provide support and encouragement to anyone who may need it.
Beyond just sharing the program with those who might be interested in it, my greater point in writing about Kendall’s experience is this: Like her 9-year old sister, and many other young, sensitive children, Kendall, from an early age, always seemed blessed with a strong sense of empathy and compassion. Her mother and I recognized it and we always made it a point to nurture those feelings.
Now, at age 12, we’ve watched Kendall’s special qualities give birth to an idea. That idea evolved into action. And that action may well be helping a few people through a very difficult time in their lives.
If this is what compassion can develop into by age 12, what might it become in another 5 years … or 20?
We can’t wait to see.