I was thinking the other day about a fender bender I got into about twenty years ago (BTW, I don’t even want to admit it was that long ago). It was a gorgeous summer day. I was heading down a long, straight road towards a light, no one ahead or behind me (for once). I was doing my usual fifteen miles over the speed limit, because back then I had a really bad lead foot. From a side street, a woman in an older sedan pulled out right in front of me, cutting me off. I swerved to miss her as she hit the gas as much as she could to avoid me, and we managed to keep the damage to just my headlight that collided with her tail light.
As I got out of the car, I saw she had a very scared six or seven year old in the backseat. I looked up at the mother as she came around the front of her car and steeled myself for an upset momma-bear attack. Instead, she asked if I was ok. I assured her I was and asked if they both were as well. What transpired from there was nothing short of a delightful exchange, even in the face of a car accident. She apologized multiple times for pulling out in front of me when she could have just waited another few seconds; I apologized for speeding, which can make judging whether or not to make that left turn onto a main road trickier for other drivers. We both reassured her daughter, who calmed down quickly, and agreed to each just pay our own damages. In the end, we helped each other pick up red and clear plastic shards from the road, I gave her and her kid each a stick of gum, she gave me a hug, and we both promised to be more careful and moved on with our lives.
As I recalled this event the other day, I wondered why the tone of that encounter is so rare these days… both parties more worried about the other one, both taking responsibility for their part, no one putting their own needs first. I wondered if I would react the same way if it happened today, with my kids in tow, in my newer family car, rushing to a place where we would now be late. I really, really hoped I would. I resolved that I would.
I try to teach my kids about putting yourself in others’ shoes. If I look around at just regular, everyday exchanges in public that I witness, so often I see people so very wrapped up in their own life experiences that they don’t realize there are other people alongside them, also experiencing life. None of us exist in a bubble. If I’m rushing around the mall because it’s my last chance to find that very specific gift for my niece before her birthday dinner that night, am I going to notice the grandmother who is panicking because she can’t find her wallet (which has dropped under the bench and out of her sight)? When I am frustrated because the store was supposed to be holding that birthday gift and it isn’t at the counter and I am running out of time and patience, am I going to slow down and be kind to the teenaged employee who is trying to find out where it is, but it is only her fourth day at the job -- at any job, in fact? When I am slowly backing my tiny Toyota Corolla out of the parking space from between two giant SUVs, is the person coming down the parking lot aisle going to angrily yell and honk at me when I edge too close to him or is he going to realize, “hey, she probably can’t see a thing until she gets halfway out of the space” and just give a friendly tap on his horn to let me know he is there?
Moreover, if we are frazzled or distracted or running late and we fail at putting ourselves in another’s shoes and we snap… are we going to fix it? Apologize? Learn from it?
I find it a hard trail to traverse with my daughters sometimes. Do I groom them to primarily look out for others? For themselves? Both? Unfortunately, they do not fall far from the family tree in that they tend to be kind of wallflower-ish and often their needs are overlooked in a larger setting. They are not those kids waving their arms, yelling, “Over here! What about me!?” In the past, overworked teachers have not realized that they did not get pizza at the pizza party or were never called on to pass out their valentines. Birthdays have passed without acknowledgment from distracted family members (I'm sure many of us have been guilty of this one). Once, my daughter was asked to get a ball in a far-flung field at P.E. class and then literally left outside as the class returned to the gym, the building door locking behind them. It can be hard as a parent to watch, but helping them build those skills to take up and speak up for themselves when needed is important. However, we want to make sure they are looking out for others, too, and putting others first when it is appropriate. It can be a fine line. Of course I want them to be looking out for other people and to be the kids who will give up their spot in line for the person on crutches, give the last piece of piñata candy to a younger child, and give their chair to an elder. But I feel like we also need to make sure they know that it is ok to look out for yourself, too. In a world where people are on ‘Planet Me’ more and more, I need them to know it is ok to say, “hey, I matter, too.” There is nothing quite as soul-crushing as to realize that you have become, in no uncertain terms, a doormat.
So I guess we keep pressing on, shining a light on the nuances of daily interactions to see where we yield to others and where we stay put; modeling kindnesses to strangers; making sure we highlight opportunities to imagine someone else’s point of view in a shared experience. We try to impress upon them that taking responsibility for our actions (in a 6 and 7 year old way) is not an option, it is a requirement. We keep our fingers crossed that in the future our kids will be able to take the wheel and navigate what can be murky waters in a way that will be good for them and good for society, and that one day they will realize that sometimes, those are indeed the same thing.