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Compassion Fatigue

Twice lately I’ve found myself in situations in which I think I should be able to muster up sympathy, only to find that that my reserves of compassion are spent. I’m not proud of it, but I’m having a hard time talking my way out of it. Maybe writing will help.

The first instance occurred during swim lessons last week. Simon was paired with a 5-year-old, and I had hoped that having a peer in his new class would be beneficial. Unfortunately, it worked out the opposite. Bethany* appeared to be a child with a short attention span on a good day, and according to her father, the day of the class had been a very bad one. She didn’t stay on the platform when she was supposed to, she didn’t wait her turn for exercises, and she resisted instruction mightily. More than once, when the teacher tried to redirect Bethany in the pool, Bethany threw a fit, thrashed in the water, and lashed out with hands and feet at the teacher.

I was horrified. Bethany’s father looked more exhausted than horrified. Once he pulled her out of the pool to talk to her, during which time Bethany took a swipe at him, too. That father seemed unsurprised by that. One other time, the father took Bethany to an area behind the pool deck for a private conversation, after which she returned to her earlier poor form. When the lesson was over, Bethany jumped back into the pool at least twice, a strict no-no as other classes are in session, while her father observed—seemingly impassively—from the sidelines.

I kind of think that my better self should recognize that this child has issues, and that this parent is outgunned by them. A kinder person might think “This could be me” and muster up some sympathy. In actual fact, I was steamed. Mad that the parent let the lesson continue after such a display, mad that my son’s lesson was continuously disrupted, and borderline contemptuous that a parent would allow a five-year-old to strike him in public. The minute the child hit or kicked anyone, she should have gone home.

But then I think, have I walked in his shoes? Do I have any idea what this person’s life is like? Shouldn’t I give this kid the benefit of the doubt a bit more before making up my mind or lodging a complaint? (I already alerted key personnel to be on deck the next time to assess and observe; the teacher and two life-guards also filed reports.)

I don’t know. Nor did I have an immediate answer yesterday, when Simon went to his basketball class. There’s a boy in that class, Emmett*, that had seemed lost in a class once before. Then I missed a game or two and quit paying close attention. Yesterday I was present and focused, and quickly realized that Emmett is out of his league. He couldn’t hold still or follow directions. He ran when he wasn’t supposed to, picked up and/or stepped on cones the kids were supposed to be dribbling around, cut in line, and held the ball when he was supposed to pass it.

Again, there was a flash of sympathy, a momentary realization that I am lucky not to have a child with developmental delays. Except… and “except” is the tip-off that I’m about to sound uncharitable, Emmett’s parents had their backs to the game the entire time. At least a quarter, and maybe a third, of class-time was consumed by the coach redirecting and/or correcting Emmett. All the while Mom and Dad chatted away with their buddies on the sidelines, letting Emmett eat up a disproportionate amount of time.

Then I think, well, Emmett wasn’t hurting anyone. And his poor parents are probably tired from dealing with a special-needs child all the time. Maybe basketball is no big deal and this an hour or so a week that they get a break from it all.

Like I said at the beginning, I don’t have clear answers as to what a reasonable or compassionate response to these kids is. But I might have some direction now. I’m thinking that Bethany is the bigger issue because a violent outburst in the pool could hurt Simon or their teacher, and that if disruptive behavior continues I should ask to be placed in a different group and/or that Bethany should be pulled from group lessons.

As for Emmett, well, little Emmett is probably doing the best he can and not hurting anyone. I think the folks that run the basketball class should put an additional coach on the floor to accommodate his needs and/or recruit a parent volunteer. Ideally, that parent might even be Emmett’s. But I’m going to work harder to summon up compassion where they are concerned at next week’s lesson.

Does that sound about right? I’m still not sure.

*names changed for privacy sake

2 Responses to “Compassion Fatigue”

  1. Amanda says:

    Yes, that sounds about right. As a cousin of an intellectually disabled child, patience is welcomed. Emmett is doing the best he can; frankly, it’s equally possible you’d have some other totally uncoordinated kid with nearly the same issues who isn’t delayed. His parents probably should help out, but be aware that my aunt and uncle didn’t go out alone without Matt for *20 years*, as they simply couldn’t leave him with anyone else due to his issues. Catching a quick break to talk to a normal adult is a real blessing. Bethany is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. Her father should have removed her when she was disruptive, and gone home. Some days some kids have just had it and need the break. When Matt (who did have issues) was disruptive he got taken home. Period. I think that’s the difference; Emmett is slow but not disruptive–not being very coordinated or able to follow instructions can be annoying but he’s doing his best. Bethany, on the other hand, is deliberately being disruptive and violent. She should either behave, or be removed. Or I would remove Simon, because you don’t want him getting hit.

  2. Amanda says:

    And I should say, save some compassion for you, too! You are allowed to have a day where you are not feeling typically charitable. It’s called being human.

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