Raising Compassionate Boys: An Experiment in Parenting

kozo son

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.

 

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About Kozo Hattori

Kozo Hattori is creator of RaisingCompassionateBoys.com which focuses on cultivating emotional intelligence in boys.
He is also a counselor at PeaceInRelationships.com where he helps individuals find peace in their relationship with life.
You can follow Kozo on twitter, youtube, and facebook.

Comments

  1. “The culture of cruelty that boys experience…”

    My ex said that while growing up in a strict parochial school as a child, he was standing in line with other students…he was talking to another boy when out of the blue the priest/teacher hit him in the head with his fist….his offense was talking when he should have been silent…

    He would talk about the unfairness of that act…and yet I could not predict that later he would become just like that same brutal teacher to me…

    • Sorry to hear that you had to experience that Leia. I’m not condoning your ex’s behavior, but I can’t imagine a teacher would hit a girl on the head with their fist if they were talking. Also, boys aren’t allowed to “process” this experience since they are not allowed to cry, ask for help, or express their feelings. Patriarchy hurts both men and women. One of my truisms is “hurt people hurt people.” I feel bad for you and your ex.

  2. Welcome to the other side. It’s nice to have you. This was well written and I can relate. Good luck with your journey!

    • Thanks, HM. It feels great to be on the other side. I’m trying to raise my sons so they at least have a choice on which side they live in. With Gratitude, Kozo

  3. Any father that recognizes that compassion is a core value important to engender in their child is likely to achieve the goal by providing a living example. However, I am curious to know more about the concrete strategies being employed by the author. I am familiar with Susan Kaiser Greenland writings on employing mindfulness techniques with children to help manage stress, conflict, and experiences with the goal of raising kinder, happier, more compassionate children. Her book is The Mindful Child.

    • Great question, John. I’m employing strategies from mindfulness, tonglen, vipassana, buddhism, mystic christianity, somatic healing, touch, re-evaluation therapy, interpersonal neurobiology, and spirituality in general. I did a series called the Compassionate Men Interview series, where a lot of these ideas came from. Interviewees like Dan Siegel, Rick Hanson, Thich Nhat Hanh, Father Richard Rohr, and Ted Zeff influence my mindset, as well as Kindlon and Thompson, Steve Biddulph, Marshall Rosenberg, and the Dalai Lama.

      I just finished a book called Mindful Discipline by Shapiro and White that was very in line with my strategies. In the weeks ahead, I hope to delve into these ideas, authors, practices, and role models.

      I am always open to suggestions. Thank you for participating. Kozo

  4. This is what you really should read (in case you haven’t done already)
    : Hold on to your kids. The best book about what is wrong with our society and how to solve a lot of the problems that come with it. There are many readings from the writers on youtbe. They are Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté. … enjoy. (And thanks for the open heartedness, loved to read your column)
    Greetings from the Netherlands. Suzy

    • Hey Suzy,
      Great recommendation. I haven’t read Neufeld and Mate, but Shapiro and White refer to them A LOT in their book Mindful Discipline. I am familiar with their work, but I definitely need to go to the source material. Thank you so much for the valuable insight. You know what they say about having to hear things three times before we take notice? This is the third reference to Neufeld and Mate, so I’m headed to Amazon now. :) With Gratitude,
      Kozo

      • Suzy,
        I forgot to send my compassion and prayers for the Dutch families affected by the horrible plane crash. Hope you know that countless others share the suffering of your country. {{{Hugs}}} kozo

  5. As a middle-aged adult I read the entire Harry Potter series and was quite moved by Harry’s example of compassion. I ended up writing a little ebook, The Codes Of Harry Potter, which examines how kids and adults, Potter fans or not, can use its messages to create a new world community based on love and compassion.

    Now there is a report of three studies showing that kids who read Harry Potter have more positive perceptions of stigmatized groups like the LGBT community, refugees and immigrants. So you might consider reading Harry Potter to your children, or inviting them to read it. Here’s the link: http://mic.com/articles/95236/psychologists-find-a-surprising-thing-happens-to-kids-who-read-harry-potter

    Peace to you,
    Irlianna Samsara

  6. Mike Archer says:

    I’m a retired teacher. Strongly agree with Irlianna about this. A new world community based on love and compassion will come. When young people make a connection with literature, it can be life changing. The discovery/evolution of social and cultural wisdom by young seekers is often sparked by authors speaking to young audiences through characters and stories, shining light on humanity’s very best ideas in new, relevant settings. I suggest that one way to help raise compassionate boys is to help them discover compassionate authors.

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