Children – Empathy or Strategy

Savvy Sunday Salutations:  Here we are at the end of week ones’ newly structured schedule (I hope you are enjoying the change and its developments); I wanted to start of Savvy Sunday Salutations with a good friend of mine, he goes by the alias Patrick Tulley (he’s a little shy).  I have known Patrick for a number of years (since University) and although we do not always see eye to eye on many of the topics we discuss; we still manage to have an amicable debated discussion that can last for hours; so it was only a matter of time for me to come up with the only solution I thought was a fitting tribute: to invite Patrick along so we can continue our discussions here.

Before we continue, I would like you to have a quick peek at this Disclaimer; whilst we (guest bloggers and I) do not set about to intentionally upset visitors to the site; I understand some of the topics discussed/raised may touch nerves.  Please note I will do my utmost to screen these posts before I post them however; I do believe in freedom of speech and I would hate to limit someone because they think differently to me or have different values from mine.  Therefore, I urge you to have some understanding and an open mind before jumping in and causing a scene without it being constructive.  Like I said, Patrick and I do have difference of opinions and on most cases we agree to disagree but at the same time we also respect the others’ thoughts and views -after all we do live in a civilized world; with this in mind I hope we will have more cultivated and engaging discussions.  One last note to all:  Here on yikici I have aimed to keep posts and discussions clean; I am not a fan of words that are disrespectful and disparaging therefore, I will not condone its’ use here on yikici; I do hope you share my views on this –if not, at least can respect them.

(As always there is a pdf document at the bottom of the post for those who may find this a difficult read.)


My name is Patrick Tulley. I am primarily a philosopher and an amateur writer but also have been a painter and sculptor in the past.  My background has been quite varied, as I have lived abroad on and off during my 20’s, been in a number of different professions (mainly managerial) and owned and ran two businesses.  More recently, I have been working as a private consultant within the public sector.

Since philosophy is my preferred interest; it is always something I rigorously apply to all my thinking and writing. Whilst I am knowledgeable about abstract philosophy, I am not particularly interested in taking that route.  Philosophy is about the search for truth, it was always meant to be understandable by everyday people -this does not mean dumbing down the ideas of course.  It just means I do not allow myself to get sidetracked by too many inconsequential arguments, often referred to as lifeboat scenarios.  I tend towards the more Aristotelian and Socratic methods of philosophy, but I also have interests in Hume, Nietzsche and Rand.  Philosophy has been a wonderful and fulfilling part of my life; it’s often been a very misunderstood subject -which I hope to discuss in future posts.  I also enjoy reviewing art, literature, music and passing comments on culture, news and personal experiences that I have found both interesting and enlightening.  I do not have a particular interest in politics –however; I may discuss my reasons with you sporadically throughout this blog.  Overall, this is hoped to be a journal about a philosophical life.  I hope you will enjoy my outlook on things and look forward to hearing your comments and thoughts along the way. I would also like to thank Ozlem for giving me this opportunity to have a voice on her blog.

Children – Empathy or Strategy

I was taking my usual walk to work via a shortcut I’ve just recently discovered and I was following two young mothers pushing prams. There was also a young boy probably no older than say 3, perhaps 4 years old straggling some 6 – 10ft behind them. As I was following them I happened to eavesdrop on the conversation which these two ladies were having. They were discussing motherhood in general with a certain disingenuous tone. However, this little boy was struggling to keep up as these two ladies marched on at an adult pace. My sympathy was raised for this boy’s poor little legs which had probably only learnt to walk in the past 18 months to 2 years. I thought how amazing that this young lad had managed a task we all take for granted now. The ability to stand on ones two legs and walk require enormous reserves of energy and thought. Balance does not come naturally to our species, as we must learn how to balance firstly. What I found profoundly interesting of this little boy, was that he wasn’t complaining about having to keep up, indeed it would seem that his distance reflected his need to be closer to his mother as he gritted his small teeth to try and keep up to speed. It was at this moment that his Mother’s friend asked her if she would consider having any more children. To which she stopped walking, turned around to face her little son and said, ‘I take one look at him and say, never, never again’. The little boy stops for a moment and looks up at his mother for a momentary glance into her eyes and then runs headlong towards her and wraps himself around his Mother’s leg. One could see his Mother visibly warm towards this gesture as she reaches down to rub his back. But rather than lose face with her friend over what she had said earlier, she makes some comment about not having enough time to raise more children.

Now this situation would seem on the surface to have no more meaning than a light conversation juxtaposed by a small child’s interaction with their parent. However, I was struck by a powerful epiphany during this interplay which is what led me to write my thoughts in the first place. I should preface this experience by first explaining that unless you have empathy for the child you knew best, yourself of course, you are most unlikely to understand the very palpable reaction that I experienced during this observation. This young boy knew his place in the world or rather I should say he knew best the strategy for his own survival. He knew it would be pointless to complain to his Mother that she was walking too fast and that he was struggling to keep up. Of course, I cannot know exactly why it would be pointless for him to complain. But it was clear from his determination to keep up in such an unflinching manner, that his experience of this situation had been one in which he should just gather all of his energies and resources into just ‘keeping up’. Whether it was punishment or derision that he received, who knows. But the concentration written on his little face said it all – Keep up!! It didn’t require his mother to tell him to keep up, as she was seemingly unaware of his plight at this time, as she and her friend marched on. It was then that as I slowly caught up with this boy that his Mother turned around and passed her little judgement upon him.

‘I take one look at him and say, never, never again’

I was struck by a powerful empathy for that little boy, but was also frozen by my own paralysis to intervene. But watching him glance into his Mother’s eyes for just a split second, said it all. In that moment he appeared to be thinking and passing through his memories of past experiences. He understood his Mother had a deep resentment for something, that she was sad and unhappy with her lot. He may not have known why of course, but he knew how it affected his short life thus far. He knew, albeit maybe not in its entirety that he needed to soothe his Mother’s anguish somehow, if only as a means to preserving his own existence. So it was; that a passionate hugging of her leg could melt her otherwise stone cold affection for him. That it was he that instigated the affection and not his Mother meant this little boy was completely aware of his predicament. I was saddened and deeply amazed at the powerful knowledge this little boy had. Amazed by his ability to strategize so effortlessly at such a tender age, but deeply saddened by the immense loss of his own feelings and desires as he navigates his life around these tormented adults.

It should be noted that this whole experience happened for me within less than 2 minutes from start to finish. Time seemed to slow down for me as a means to digesting this moment, not just for this little lad, but for myself as well. Of course, most adults would suggest that this was the child showing empathy for their parent. That this was a sweet moment between Mother and son. But I ask you, what you would say of a friend or relative, as an adult. If they were to face you and say to their friend that your company wasn’t welcome? That in fact your very existence meant they could never acquaint themselves with another? You would most likely be deeply hurt, perhaps enraged even. How dare they speak so ill of me! Who do they think they are?! I would imagine eventually you would cease being around that person and rightly so in my opinion. Imagine how horrible his Mother’s words were to that little boy. If only understood from body language and tone alone, her petulance was acutely clear. But in his tiny presence he was most unlikely to change compared to that of our own adult choices. He is a prisoner of this abuse and he must find a way to cope and exist in a world that shows him scant regard. Therefore he hugs his Mother’s leg, not out of love, but from a deep need to survive.

Copyright © Patrick Tulley 2011 – All Rights Reserved.


Thoughts and comments are encouraged as always.

Pdf document:  Children – Empathy or Strategy


~ by yikici on June 19, 2011.

16 Responses to “Children – Empathy or Strategy”

  1. I loved it! thx 🙂

    • Marc, I’m glad to hear you liked it, thank you for popping by and sharing your thoughts. 🙂

  2. Patrick,

    Thank you for a lovely piece; it is always a wonder to me what goes on in peoples mind; I always try to decipher these moments and hope to get some understanding… What you conveyed here, I can relate to and I am inclined to have similar thoughts and questions -but I wanted to play devil’s advocate and pose this to you: As you should know, some mothers suffer from post-natal depression etc and this got me thinking; what if this particular mother had a similar experience and that is the real reason for her reluctance to have another child? By all means, her reaction has set a hidden acknowledgement in the child but I wonder if it stems from a negative experience rather than her relationship with her child?

  3. That’s a great question.. Of course many parents may suffer from all manner of problems, whether physical or psychological.. My question to that would be.. How could that child possibly know? They were born into a world for which they just appeared in, with the only knowledge they have is the experience of the people in this new world they now inhabit.. As parents we have a duty to these little people we produce, since they are innocent and indeed not responsible for the way an adult feels or suffers.. Does that make sense at all?

    • It is true that a child would not know that however; I do believe there are studies that show we are born with instinctive reasoning’s and therefore it is possible that the child adapts to the given situation this way -having said that; your argument would be: why subject them to the parents/adults predicaments; my thoughts to this matter is: yes, it is unfair to subject the child in this manner as a responsible adult; but is it not also unfair on the adult -who despite, trying very hard to be the better parent; struggles in attaining a better quality of life for themselves and the child (subconsciously or consciously)?

  4. Thanks for sharing this Patrick, it’s a very sad story indeed. I am often confronted with parents who treat their children ‘hot’, so to say, parents who are too actively and too aggressively managing their children. In the moment the agressive parent is more frightening to me, but it’s the coldness that’s really scary in the long run. I think it’s better to be shown care wrongly, than to be shown uncaring.

    yikici, thanks for giving Patrick a podium and thanks for your insightful replies. I would reply to your question about things being unfair to the parent the following.

    The parent had the choice not to get a child or to take measures in preventing pregnancy. The child had no choice; that doesn’t mean it doesn’t want to be here, but it just has no control over it or it’s parents. All the control, all the power is in their hands – even the power to think about their struggles and act on it, for example by talking to someone. I don’t want to minimize the experience of the parent of course, I just want to point out that the parent has a choice and the child does not. What do you think?

    • Pim, thank you for popping by and sharing your thoughts; Patrick is a good friend -I always enjoying having a banter with him so it is a delight to have him here expressing his thoughts.

      Back to the discussion: You raise a valid arguement and I do believe the element of choice (if used wisely) can make a great difference to the child; however, you have to reallise that sometimes that choice is taken away from the parent; be it in the form of post-natal depression, an accident causing pregnancy (here the dilemma of morning after pill, abortion or having a child comes to play) or quite simply circumstances beyond their control hinders the prospects as parents.

      I am unsure of your use of words

      I think it’s better to be shown care wrongly

      can you please expand what you mean.

  5. Well, in fairness that was my point.. The child I believe does strategies, insofar as they instinctively behave in such a way that will please the parent.. However, I’m not sure this absolves the parent of their behaviour.. Whether a parent is struggling with being what might be coined as a ‘good’ parent.. the child is only aware of their actual experience.. They cannot possibly know at that age, what the parent is experiencing either in the moment or before then. The child is just aware of their desire to live, so they make moves that way.. hence the way this little chap hugs his Mothers leg..

    • Patrick, I never said I disagreed with the point you were making; I am of a like-mind to that particular arguement; I just wanted to bring the other side of the equation to the forefront. I don’t believe anything can condone an unkind action/words to an innocent child; that is just plain mean and hurtful; but I do emphasize with parents who are struggling to understand their own predicament and try to get through the day -though that does not give them the right to hate the child (though sometimes mental disorders -mild or severe, does not allow any reasoning). Having said all this, it is true the child does not know anything other than gut instinctive suvival; isn’t that a marvelous thing in itself; self-preservation is apparent and very real from when we are born.

      • Yes, I think it is marvellous that they can do that so young. It goes against everything we are told about children perhaps, That they possess know knowledge at all. But I think clearly they do..

  6. a couple of points firstly we are the products of how we were parented ourselves. Not to condone the mothers behaviour but often it is a matter of a cycle (inevitability but an increased liklihood) of ambivalence around being a parent. As you said the whole incidence lasted a couple of minutes and perhaps there is a danger of drawing too many conclusions from such an incounter, it is a subjective view after all and that is not to say that your observations are incorrect but maybe it is worth to question our own value judgements, our own bias’ and to counter that against the perception that we are recounting an objective reality. Lastly i think that it would be interesting to look at the situation recounted in terms of attachment theory. But then i am not a philosopher and have a limited knowledge of philosophical theories.

    • Yes, that is interesting, ambivalent parenthood is I would say quite a major factor in the world today. People choose parenthood for all manner of reasons, so it would be impossible to say exactly why this particular parent chose to be a parent of course. But I think where we can see some objectivity in this whole incident, was by the Mother’s response to her friend.. I quote, ‘I take one look at him and say, never, never again’. I think that statement itself was said with great pause and clarity for that Mother. She said it, because she meant it and indeed she was facing her child as she said it. When the child then decides to show affection, she then tries to change her experience by suggesting a more pallet-able reason. I’m not sure it’s entirely objective, but it’s pretty close. You need to ask yourself, how would I feel if a complete stranger said this to me. Then I think it becomes a bit clearer, if that makes sense.

    • Apologies I missed your first point. Yes indeed we are products of our own parenting of course. What I would say however, is that rather than react to our own past on our own child, we should be careful to recognise the negativity we grew up with and try not to replicate it in our own children. This is part of the responsibility I think adults have with their own children and indeed will change that cycle. We are hopefully evolving into more agreeable people generation after generation, as we consider our past and how we react in the present. My personal thoughts are, that this is how the world will become a better place. I might touch on this in the next few weeks, but thanks for bringing it up.

  7. […] Salutations:  Welcome to another week with guest blogger Patrick Tulley; we had great feedback last week (thank you for all your comments); this week Patrick talks about Art and how it intertwines into […]

  8. […] and terrifying rage with a 5 year old? Of course, as I have suggested in a previous post, Children – empathy or strategy, that as children we are prone to assimilating our parent’s needs, as a means of survival. There […]

  9. […] and terrifying rage with a 5 year old? Of course, as I have suggested in a previous post, Children – empathy or strategy, that as children we are prone to assimilating our parent’s needs, as a means of survival. There […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: