I watched the 1948 movie version of “Oliver Twist.” Oliver is an orphan, raised in an English workhouse which, essentially, requires slavery for food and shelter; then Oliver is sold, at about eight years old, to an undertaker as an apprentice, where he is also treated cruelly.
He runs away and gets taken up by a gang of street boys bossed by the unsavory adult criminal Fagin, who teaches the boys to thieve. Then, because Oliver gets hit in the face (by an adult) and mistakenly gets arres
ted, he comes to the attention of a caring gentleman, wo takes him to his home where Oliver is attended by a loving old woman housekeeper.
When Oliver awakens from his injury-induced stupor, in a clean, soft, bed, with the kind old woman attending to him, he suddenly throws his arms around her. What a profound relief it is, to the viewer, to see someone finally demonstrating empathy!
In real life, a child mistreated as was Oliver might not be able to respond to kindness. I recall the child I once worked with when I was a therapist, who would duck when his new foster parents approached his crib. In the years that I knew him, he could not respond to their loving gestures. Probably, as was not then known, his brain development had been affected by the cruelty he had experienced as a very young child.
We learn empathy by being shown empathy. And most of us are able to respond and then show empathy for others. Every child needs at least one person who is kind. In certain situations, a child’s parent might not be that person. Those of us who teach, who work with children and families might be in a position to be that crucial kind person who could make all the difference in a child’s life.