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The Nature of Sensitivity

At the very heart of the values and virtues most parents want for their children is the basic quality of empathy and sensitivity toward other people and toward the beauty and potential of the world and of life itself. Children who learn to care and to feel vastly expand their potential to be happy as well as their capacity to give happiness to those they will love throughout their lives.

This program, then, is about the core virtue of humankind – about the value of sensitivity that can make the lives of our children (and ourselves) full and complete.

Becoming a truly sensitive person involves learning a sequence of skills and awareness levels – all of which takes practice and repetition – none of which can be mastered overnight. The strategy of this program is to work with children on one aspect of sensitivity for a full month – then to move to the next sequential skill for the following month.

In all there are nine abilities – nine separate virtues or aspects of sensitivity, each of which builds on and expands on the previous one and all of which grow together to create the complete quality of a sensitive, caring approach to life. Over the course of several months, you can give this gift to your children and, in the process, you will give it to yourself as well.

Meanings of Sensitivity

Psychologists might call it empathy.

Psychiatrists might say extra-centeredness.

Christians may recognize it as charity and quote scriptures that set it apart as the highest virtue.

Jews as well as Christians could refer to it as the Golden Rule.

Buddhists, in strikingly similar language, would say seeking for others the happiness you desire for yourself.

In slightly different words, Hindus or Muslims would say the same thing.

Common people of any religion or no religion with common words of any language might just call it service.

And philosophers might name it love of one’s neighbor and might remind us that it is “the only door out of the dungeon of self.”
– G. K. Chesterton (English Author, 1874-1936)

We have called it sensitivity. But we wish the word to mean all of the above. We believe that it can be learned and taught and that it truly can be, both for our children and for ourselves, the door out of the dungeon of self.

As children grow through the elementary years, they often seem to lose their sweet, caring quality. Once they enter adolescence, their self-awareness becomes almost painful, sometimes leading to self-conscious shyness or withdrawal and sometimes to aggressive rebellion.

Sometimes the best way to define or understand a term is by its opposites. By sensitivity we mean the opposite of selfishness, self-centeredness, and self-consciousness – the opposite of the self-focused qualities that George Bernard Shaw said turns men into “selfish, feverish little clods of ailments, complaining that the world will not give us a living.”

Sensitivity is a broadening, expanding quality. As the old phrase says, “He who is wrapped up in himself makes a very small package.” The less preoccupation we have with ourselves – with our own needs and comforts – the more we can learn from, appreciate, and enjoy others.

Just as pride, greed, envy, and jealousy turn us inward and make us less aware of everything except what we want, sensitivity turns us outward and make us less aware of our own little troubles and more aware of the vast world around us – the world of beauty, of opportunity, and of other people.

Sensitivity is the foundation and the reinforcement for so much of what we hope to teach and to give our children. But it is not a simple quality, and it is not easy to teach or to learn. It is a series of skills that need to be developed one at a time and then blended together.

While it may be difficult to develop sensitivity, we’ve simplified the process by breaking it down like this:

U + O + F + C + D = S

Understanding + observing + feeling + communicating + doing = sensitivity.

Understanding (this preface has the objective of helping you understand the concept of sensitivity as it applies and can be taught to children of various ages).

Months 1 and 2 (seeing and listening) consist of a collection of workable methods to help children be more observant – to see and listen better.

Months 3, 4 and 5 are about helping children to be more honest about how they feel and more conscious of how others feel.

Months 6 and 7 consist of methods to help families and individuals communicate better about what they see and feel.

Months 8 and 9 are about service, which is the culminating action of sensitivity.

Together the nine months and their skills add up to sensitivity. Together they can make a difference in how we live and in how we love.

In the “program” you will have all the ideas, methods, stories, and answers you need to teach each skill. They are written to interact and draw your teenagers in so he or she will be as interested as you are.

Do this program with your teen. Make the commitment to develop your own sensitivity right alongside your teen.

Program Overview

Once again, this is a program based on a belief that a great many of the problems and concerns of preteens and teenagers are based on their self-centeredness. If we can get our adolescents to get their minds off themselves and their worries, most of their problems are solved. If we can get them to get their minds on to the needs of others, they cease to be part of the problem and become part of the solution. Perhaps the best name for this ability to think about others rather than self is sensitivity.

This is not a psychological or analytical treatise on teenage behavior, nor is it a bunch of generalizations about what happens or should happen at each age or phase of adolescent development. Rather, it is a program of methods and exercises aimed at the objective of learning and teaching sensitivity. It is an organized, categorized, list of techniques to help you increase the empathy and extra-centeredness of your children and of yourself. (Extra-centeredness is the ability to think of and feel for other people– the opposite of self-centeredness.)

Sensitivity is made up of several elements: the ability to see and observe, the ability to feel and communicate, the ability to empathize and give service and encouragement to others. The goal is not necessarily to make children into “good Samaritans” or people who spend their full time doing good turns and serving others. Such a goal with busy, volatile, moody teenagers would be unrealistic. The attitudes and skills that go into service and charity, however, can best be developed in children while they are in their adolescence. It is these charity-related attitudes and skills that this program is about.

We feel that sensitivity must be learned, one element at a time. We also know that it is difficult for busy parents to concentrate on learning or teaching more than one concept at a time. Thus we suggest that parents concentrate on one element each month, making the program a nine-month sequence for developing more sensitivity in themselves and in their children.

Before we get to those one-a-month elements, though, let’s think together about ourselves and our children. The simple fact is that teenagers are tough – tough to raise and tough to live with. To say they are a challenge might win first prize in a contest of understatements! A friend of ours says that the only thing she can think of to compare her teenager with is a werewolf or a Mr. Hyde. The daylight of his sweet childhood was transformed by the full moon of adolescence. He grew fangs! He started to bite!

There aren’t any perfect teenagers, but then again, there aren’t any perfect parents. There aren’t even any perfect solutions for teenage problems. But there are some things that help.

Whom the Program Is For

Though this is a program for all parents and teenagers, it is especially for parents of young teenagers and preteen adolescents. It is a simple fact of life that twelve year olds are more teachable than sixteen year olds. Many parents will find that some of this program’s methods work well with eight year olds and even younger children.

This program is not written for parents of children with severe problems such as drug addiction, serious criminal activity, or even total alienation from family. We leave such problems to experts who are far more qualified to deal with them than we are.

Rather, it is for parents who want a program to avoid those problems. It is for parents who want to act rather than react, who prefer the positive notion of “parenting by objective” over the negative approach of solving problems when they grow too big to ignore. Our belief is that the best defense is a good offense, that parents who seek to give their children greater capacity for sensitivity will, in the process, give themselves freedom from many problems that would otherwise arise. We believe that service, empathy, and sensitivity are preventive medicine.

Why it’s so tough

Let’s look at what parents are up against and at why the preteen and teen years are usually the biggest challenge a family faces. There are some very definite reasons:

  1. Adolescence is a real change. There are physical changes of puberty and growth spurts. There are mental changes as adult brain-wave patterns take over, and there are untold emotional and social changes and traumas.
  2. At about the same time in the life of a family, parents are undergoing the equally real changes of mid-life crisis. The sparks of each change create added friction against the other.
  3. We live in an era when child rearing is more difficult than ever before. Music, media, and the Internet surround our children with “other voices” from every persuasion and amorality is rampant.
  4. A sixth grade teacher recently said: “I’ve started substitute teaching after being away for eight years. Kids have changed – I can’t believe how cruel they are to each other. If it’s not physical, it’s verbal. It’s constant, and it’s intense.” The Carnegie Commission report, “When Dreams and Heros Died,” says today older adolescents have a “titanic mentality.” They think the ship of state is headed for disaster, but they want to go first class. Their goal is not to better the world but to make a lot of money, have status, and live well. Television sitcoms teach children that put-downs are funny and cool. And a steady diet of TV commercials (the average child sees 20,000 per year) fosters a self-centered appetite for ever more things and makes it harder for parents to encourage children to think of the needs of others. The bottom line is that the society around us, perhaps more than ever before, teaches our children selfishness and cruelty.

When the changes of adolescence, the changes of mid-life, and the changes in our world and our society come together and converge within our families, we feel the pressure. Sometimes it feels like an explosion!

Can sensitivity neutralize the pressure? Can extra-centeredness become a practical, day-to-day atmosphere and pattern of life that prevents some problems and solves others? We think it can – see if you do.

Case Studies of Ordinary Adolescents

  1. Kelly, Peer pressure, and Morality

    Kelly is as aware of peer approval as any normal fourteen-your-old boy. He’s put on some inches and pounds lately and improved as a ballplayer, which has allowed him to crack the “in crowd.” His new friends brag about their exploits with girls and Kelly is never sure how much of it is just talk and how much they have really done.

    He wants to have something to talk about too, and while he certainly doesn’t want to get in trouble, he is influenced by his peers who tell him that “there’s no danger as long as you use a condom or keep it oral.”

  2. Allison, Shyness, and Sociability

    Allison, thirteen, is usually talkative, even boisterous around home. She is a bright girl, and attractive, and she has never been without opinions or hesitant to express them. So her parents have always been a little miffed when teachers told them that Allison was painfully shy at school.

    Occasionally, in moments of frustration, Allison would express the pain. “No one likes me.” “Everyone ignores me.” “I’m so sick of sitting all by myself in the lunchroom.” “When I don’t eat, I’m just sitting alone in the hall trying to look busy and hoping people don’t notice that I’m always by myself.” “Why doesn’t somebody pay attention to me?”

    And, speaking of eating, she doesn’t. She thinks she is fat.

  3. Larry, Drugs, and Independence

    Larry, fifteen, has a drug problem. It’s not an addiction problem so much as an experimentation problem. It’s hard for him to resist trying things, particularly when his friends push him. His parents don’t know much about it. They suspect that he’s “on” something or other but there’s not much communication between them and Larry. The only adult Larry talks to is his uncle Bill, who takes Larry hunting and fishing and who respect his confidence. In their last discussion, Larry said, “Life is boring. The only thing that makes it interesting is trying new things. The guys I hang around with are a lot more exciting than the other kids. We’re finding out things for ourselves rather than just doing the old routine things that parents want their kids to do.

  4. Patsy, Respect, and Authority

    Patsy, twelve, has recently become a know-it-all. Suddenly no one, particularly not her parents, can tell her anything. In fact, simultaneously with her becoming a know-it-all, her parents have become know-nothings. She questions everything, including their authority to tell her to do anything. She is critical of her family, of her friends, of how people dress, of how hypocritical everyone is, and of everything but herself. She is so obnoxiously outspoken about everything that she is extremely hard to be around.

  5. Becky, Dating, and Old-Fashioned Parents

    Becky, who just turned fourteen, has been dating only for the last couple of months. The trouble is that she is dating the wrong kind of boys, or at least her parents think so. “What do you do that attracts that kind of boy?” her mother has said. “Can’t you try to go out with someone a little more clean-cut?” Becky, predictably, argues that there is nothing wrong with the boys she dates. Some of them just have a little different world view than her parents and certain other nineteenth-century beings she knows.

  6. Jeremy, Motivation, and the Question of “Why?”

    Jeremy, thirteen, is lazy. He’s a bright enough boy; his IQ tests have always confirmed that. But he is also, according to the school counselor, a “severe underachiever.” His best grades are mediocre. His favorite activity is computer games. He has some friends, but unfortunately most of them are of his same ilk. They are on the Internet five or six hours a day.

    His folks have tried everything, from bribery to punishment and penalties of all kinds. Jeremy’s favorite response, to everything from “Get your room straightened up” to “You can’t succeed without good grades,” is “Why?”

  7. Diedra, Sensitivity, and the Cruelty of Children

    Diedra, eleven, seems to be a model child in many ways. She is intelligent, friendly, well liked, a leader in almost everything. She is the apple of everyone’s eye, particularly her parents and teachers.

    But Diedra isn’t very sensitive to other people’s needs. She assumes that everyone else is as happy as she. It hasn’t occurred to her that her own security and self-esteem could be shared or given as a gift to other children who need it.

    She is like so many children her age, openly critical and sometimes abusive of children who are a little different, a little shy, a little out of place. This criticism sometimes takes the form of ridicule and outright cruelty.

  8. Laura, Self-Esteem, and the Right Friends

    Laura, thirteen, has started to talk a lot lately about being depressed. In fact, she does more than talk about it! She is negative about everything. She expects the worst and she gets it.

    She peps up a little when she is with her friends. But they are, in her parents’ eyes, mostly the wrong type. Her mother has urged her to make friends with more of the kids in her neighborhood, to which Laura makes a horrible face and replies, “Mom, that depresses me.”

  9. Conrad, Maturity, and Moodiness

    Conrad, even though he is nearly fourteen, is very immature. He relies on his parents as much or more than his eleven-year-old brother. He gets sick quite often and seems to enjoy staying home in bed where his mother can wait on him hand and foot. He cries often and tends to sulk when he doesn’t get his way. And he must sulk at other times, too, because he sulks often and it’s not very often that he doesn’t get his way.

    He likes computers and lately he has been spending most of his time in his bedroom with his laptop.

  10. Norman, Hyperactivity, and Attention Span

    Norman’s mom describes him as “a twelve year old, hyperactive, social butterfly who never lights.” From the time he was a small boy, Norm has loved people. He would bring a different friend home from school every afternoon if he was allowed to.

    But he can’t stay with anything. His attention span is about five seconds long. He’s been taking piano lessons for nearly three years and has made very little progress because he can’t discipline himself to practice. Grades, sports, and other interests suffer for the same lack of discipline.

  11. Lisa, Honesty, and Rationalization

    When Lisa was smaller, her parents were sometimes amused with the imaginative excuses she came up with. Her untruths were so creative. It was hard to get mad at her for them.

    But she is twelve now, and her little lies have ceased to be amusing. Her account of things is always whatever is most convenient or advantageous for her, whether it is true or not. With this dishonesty has come a remarkable ability to rationalize.

    Both abilities combined recently in a case or two of shoplifting. She hasn’t told her parents, of course, and will deny it if she is every asked. And if she is ever caught she will explain that the store deserves it because their prices are too high.

  12. Glen, Tidiness, and Responsibility

    Glen, who is fourteen, has never been very tidy. His messy room and general untidiness have been a problem of long duration, but one his parents have tolerated in the hope that he would grow out of it. Instead, it has become worse. He can never find anything. His own room is literally hard to get into or out of. And he leaves what his mother calls a “trail of disaster” in every room he passes through.

  13. Jill, Fad Consciousness, and Non-consideration of Family

    The absolute highlight of thirteen-year-old Jill’s week is her shopping trip to the mall on Saturdays. She also re-watches all reality shows she has recorded.

    She screams when she finds her sister wearing the only shoes she currently likes and stubbornly refuses to go to school until she gets them back. And she simply cannot understand why her mother cannot seem to remember to wash her clothes every day.

Symptoms vs. Causes

In the case of most diseases the symptoms are the manifestations of the cause, and the cause is the presence of something – namely, a virus or germs. In the case of teenagers, the symptoms are the kinds of behavior illustrated in the preceding short stories and the cause is the absence of something.

What is it the absence of? What quality, what property, what element could be added that would eliminate or reduce such varied symptoms as shyness, rebellion, obnoxiousness, laziness, dishonesty, and insensitivity?

Could the answer be something as basic as what we are calling sensitivity?

And if so – if sensitivity has the most magical properties of ultimate solution – can it be taught to adolescents? To early teens and preteens?

At this point, we would like to suggest three principles that may allow us to answer “yes” to all of the above questions:

  1. Sensitivity is a new way of thinking: an observing, feeling, communicating way of thinking.
  2. When we change the way in which someone thinks, we change the way he acts.
  3. When approached in the right way, no age group is more capable of changing how they think than preteens and early teens.


Most of the problems teenagers face, and most of the unhappiness they experience, result from their natural tendency to “look into mirrors.” Teenagers tend to see all situations, all people, and all circumstances in terms of how those things will affect them. It is these “mirrors” that cause rebellion, depression, selfishness, insensitivity, self-consciousness, and a host of other symptoms.

Adolescents look at another person, but what they see is the mirror of how that person will affect them. “What can he do for me?” “How will my reputation be affected by associating with him?” “Will it cost me anything to be nice to him?”

They look at a situation or an event, but what they see is the mirror of what they can gain or lose by it. “What can I get out of this?” “How will this make me look?”

They prove the cliché, “Someone who is all wrapped up in himself makes a very small package.” And perhaps a rather erratic and unhappy package at that!

There is no depth in mirrors. We see only the surface of ourselves when we look into them. One who stares into them continually is happy only fleetingly and is never stable or predictable because every change of light or circumstance threatens the image and changes the feeling.

Of course, if we are going to accuse our children of looking in mirrors, we had better examine ourselves first. Everyone thinks of himself more than he should, and if we are going to teach our children to be less self-centered, we had better teach ourselves the same lesson first.

As you read on you will see that that is the order of this program: First teach a particular aspect of sensitivity to yourself; then teach it to your children.

Let’s look at the solution of “windows.” With it, we can revisit some of the “ordinary adolescents” from our stories.

The prescription: “Windows”

Some Solutions for Ordinary Problems

The right kind of sensitivity gives those who have it both personal confidence and personal humility, along with empathy for others. These are tools that fix any break, prescriptions that cure any ill.

Mirrors and Windows

Some older civic and church buildings still have “cry rooms” just off the chapel or meeting area where parents can retreat to with extra-noisy babies. Many of these cry rooms feature a pane of one-way glass, which is a mirror to those sitting in the meeting room and a window to those sitting in the cry room looking out.

Metaphorically all of us are surrounded by such one-way glass. Turned one way, the glass is a mirror, causing us to view all of life as a self-centered reflection of ourselves. But we each have the power to reverse the glass, to turn mirrors into windows. Doing so is an important step in attaining sensitivity. For these windows of sensitivity are the solution to virtually every childhood and family difficulty.

Extra-centered Sensitivity:

What It Is and How It Works

Both self-centeredness and extra-centeredness tend to be self-perpetuating and self-magnifying. An extra-centered person radiates the kind of awareness and interest in others that makes him or her more interesting to others. Interest and friendliness from others then increases a person’s awareness of others and magnifies his or her extra-centeredness still farther. On the other hand, self-centered persons give off signals of unawareness and disinterest in others that wall them off and turn their awareness even farther inward toward themselves.

Someone who learns the skills (observing, feeling, communicating, giving) of sensitivity steadily becomes less aware of self and more aware of others and thus grows progressively more extra-centered.

As one’s extra-centeredness increases, something of a personal miracle happens. A person becomes steadily more aware of the nature of others and of their needs, concerns, and situations – and more aware of the differences between himself and them. As this happens, a person sees himself more accurately while thinking about himself less. The result is a greater appreciation of personal uniqueness and less inclination to want to be just like everyone else. A person becomes less interested in following the crowd and more interested in discovering his own best self. He also becomes more naturally inclined toward service and mutually helpful involvement with other people.

As a person develops greater extra-centered sensitivity and gives more service, he or she becomes:

  1. More aware of others.
  2. Less aware of self.
  3. Less inclined to follow the crowd and less dependent on the approval of peers.
  4. More inclined to perceive and appreciate his or her own uniqueness and to develop self-confidence because of it.

Refer back to the earlier vignettes and consider which of the four aspects of sensitivity noted above are needed by each child. (Actually, all four aspects would help each child, but certain ones would go right to the center of their problem.)

  1. More awareness of others. Regarding know-it-all Patsy (#4), cruel Diedra (#7), dishonest Lisa (#11), and sloppy Glen (#12), each of their symptoms is a direct outgrowth of their lack of awareness of others and their insensitivity to the needs of others.
  2. Less awareness of self. In the cases of shy, self-conscious Alison (#2), moody, immature Conrad (#9), hyperactive Norman (#10), fad-conscious Jill (#13), a less intense and constant awareness of self is the prescription.
  3. Less dependency on the approval of peers. What peer-pressured Kelly (#1), drug-experimenting Larry (#3), rebellious Becky (#5), and depressed Laura (#8) need is less dependency on peer approval, less inclination to follow the crowd.
  4. Greater awareness of own uniqueness and self-confidence. Besides an escape from peer approval, Laura (#8) needs more self-esteem and a stronger appreciation of her own uniqueness. Shy Allison (#2), unmotivated Jeremy (#6), immature Conrad (#9), and flighty Norman (#10) could also clear up their problems with the extra self-confidence that increased sensitivity would give them.

Children are not the only ones who need to turn mirrors into windows. Some of the problems discussed in the stories resulted from a lack of sensitivity not in the children but in their parents.

Self-oriented, mirror-gazing parents may become annoyed by minor amounts of normal childhood and adolescent nonconformity because of its impact on their own image or reputation. Or they may become personally hurt or offended by the new independence and strong opinions of a teenager, instead of understanding that such breaking away is a normal and healthy part of growing up.

Parents who had acquired the qualities of extra-centeredness and sensitivity would be able to understand the need for independence being expressed in various ways by the children in these stories. They would think more of the evolving needs of their children and less of their own inconvenience or embarrassment. And as they tried to teach their children the principles of sensitivity, their own empathy would allow them to look for the unique and real characters of their children rather than trying to make them over into their own preconceptions of what they should be.

Sensitivity, then, as it is developed by parents and taught to children, becomes something of a panacea. It becomes a solution for some problems, an eliminator of others, and a preventative for still others.

But this type of empathetic sensitivity, involving the capacities of understanding, seeing, feeling, communicating, and giving, is not easy to learn or to each. It is these hard-to-learn capacities at which this program takes aim, suggesting methods, techniques, and ideas through which they can be given and gained.

How to Read and Implement This Program

The capacities, abilities, or skills that go into sensitivity are like the facets of a well-cut stone. Each supports and enhances the others and contributes to the beauty of the whole.

From here on, the program is organized into months. The idea is to take one aspect or characteristic of sensitivity and work or focus on it for an entire month. Each month contains methods, ideas, and techniques on how to develop one particular element of sensitivity and how to teach it to your children. Some of the methods outlined for each month will appeal to you and will work with your children. Others will not. Pick out the ones that ring true for you and read past the ones that don’t. Use a flexible approach: Look at all the ideas, try on those you like, and keep the ones that fit and feel the best. Remember that within each month the methods are arranged with those that apply to younger children coming first.

Many of the suggestions require some individual time with children. Try to find ways to spend time together despite your busy world. Form habits of a brief talk at bedtime or first thing in the morning or right after dinner, or take a child with you in the car as you run an errand.

As you get into the nine-month program that follows, you will discover that each month suggests a “family focal point” – a method to make ongoing and habitual in your family, perhaps done on Sundays. This springs from our feeling that the first day of the week should be a day of renewal as well as rest. We also feel that Sunday is an especially appropriate time to work together on aspects of sensitivity. Therefore activities such as Sunday planning sessions, family discussions, and even a weekly “awards ceremony” are recommended for Sundays as ongoing patterns for steadily developing various facets of sensitivity.

You will also notice that some methods are used in more than one month. For example, certain writing techniques (especially journal writing and poetry), perception games, awards, and even the use of “ancestor experiences” are introduced in more than one chapter. Certain concepts and words, such as mental effort and serendipity, are also repeated. This repetition is intentional, because the methods work in more than one way and the concepts apply to more than one skill. Most importantly they are repeated because they are so relevant to the encouragement of true sensitivity that they benefit us more each time we use them.

Our challenge to you is to implement the rest of the program one month at a time, to use the methods and suggestions that you like and add your own ideas to them, and to invest nine months in the pursuit, discovery, and teaching of sensitivity.

Each month begins with a set of questions for you and your adolescent to answer individually. At the end of the month you will answer the same questions again and will be amazed at the differences.

Finish Turning Teenage Mirrors to Windows Program

  • If you have paid for part one, you can complete the program (get parts 2 and 3) for just $15.

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