In response to the plethora of school shootings, sexual assaults, and viral humiliations, Kozo Hattori is arming his sons with compassion.
Isla Vista, Sandy Hook, Steubenville, Columbine, Saratoga, Virginia Tech, Seattle Pacific University, Rutgers.
American kids, American schools, American tears.
Like all parents, my heart drops every time I see a news flash of another school shooting, viral humiliation, or teen suicide. Unfortunately, many of these tragedies seem to be happening in my backyard.
Just a few miles north in Palo Alto, a “cluster” of teens committed suicide by jumping in front of speeding Caltrains. A stone’s throw to the south, Audrie Pott hung herself after being sexually assaulted and virally humiliated at Saratoga High School.
In my hometown of Cupertino, the schools have been locked down a number of times due to bomb threats—one by a student at the ultra-competitive Monte Vista High School.
As the father of two young boys, I never want my sons to be involved in any of these atrocities. Of course, I don’t want them to be the perpetrators, but I also don’t want them to be the bystanders. I don’t just fear for their safety; I am concerned about their humanity.
At Saratoga High, degrading nude pictures of Audrie Pott went viral in the week between her sexual assault and suicide. By definition, viral humiliation is not about a few bad apples. The Facebook posts and text messages circulated around the whole school for 8 painful days. No one notified the authorities. No one reached out to this suffering young teenager. I don’t want my sons to be bystanders if something like this happens in their schools; I want them to be “upstanders” who feel the suffering of others and have a desire to help.
Let’s be clear here. When we talk about Saratoga, Rutgers, Steubenville, Isla Vista, and Sandy Hook, we are not talking about broken communities. We are talking about educated, affluent, and stable families. What this tells me is that something is wrong with “normal.” Something is wrong with how we are raising our children.
So I’ve committed my life to a social experiment. What if I raised my sons to be compassionate above all else? What if the most important item on their agenda was not academics, athletics, success (whatever that means), or fame, but authenticity, emotional intelligence, and relationships?
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons why I want to teach my sons these skills is because I never got them growing up. In fact, not only did I not receive any training in compassion or empathy, but I literally had them beaten out of me.
I remember being a very compassionate young child. I used to cry my eyes out every week watching the trials and tribulations of buck-toothed Melissa Gilbert playing Laura Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie. After my father went MIA in Vietnam, however, my mother remarried a classmate of hers from Hawaii. My stepfather was a strong believer in corporal punishment, so I consider myself a survivor of 12 years of physical abuse.
Research has shown that children who are abused have less empathy, and without empathy, it is very hard to have compassion. But it wasn’t just the physical abuse. Like most boys, I had to survive what psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson call the “culture of cruelty” that boys experience.
Luckily, I was what therapists call “high functioning,” so I became fairly “successful” in early adulthood: I was ABD on my dissertation; ran an international business; dated beautiful, intelligent women, and befriended a number of celebrities. But my lack of empathy and compassion was like a cancer that seeped into all parts of my life and destroyed them.
A good example is my relationships. Most my girlfriends broke up with me after a few years and refused to speak to me again. Many ended up marrying the very next person they dated—I had that effect on women. One of my girlfriends said, “I’ve never felt so loved and so hated by the same person.” Another said, “When we fight, it feels like you stab me in my heart with your words.” (I remember thinking at the time, “that’s because you don’t know how to argue.”)
Yet I was resilient. So when I lost lovers and friends, I found new ones. When I lost my business, I found a new career.
Then in my mid-forties, I hit rock bottom. Unemployed and on the verge of divorce, I found myself slapping my 4 year old son. As the survivor of abuse, this is one thing that I promised myself that I would never do when I became a father. But I couldn’t control myself.
In a moment of clarity, I knew I had to change. I couldn’t blame all the problems in my life on others anymore. I realized that all the suffering in my life—both my own and the suffering I inflicted on others—was rooted in a lack of compassion. So I set out to become the most compassionate man I could.
Three and a half years later, I’m still a work in progress. One thing I do know is that I never want my sons to have to go through the misery that I did, so I’m trying to raise them as compassionate boys.
I’m grateful for the Good Men Project for inviting me to publish a weekly column on this adventure. I make no claims to any expertise and no guarantees. As a recovering “dickhead” (not my term, but one that has been associated with my name a number of times), I still have a tendency to think that I know everything.
I welcome you to participate by offering criticism, empathy, or wake up calls in the comments section. Hopefully, your wisdom, experiences, and involvement will guide me on this undertaking and together we can forge a better world for our children.
I know that my experience is not universal, but I hope that this weekly column will shed some light on what it means to be a man, a parent, a father, and a human being in these crazy amazing times. Thank you for reading. See you next week.