Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Theodicy, empathy, and a 5-year-old

We drove to school. When we arrived, my five-year-old daughter asked, ‘Where’s my backpack?’

‘Don’t you have it?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I left it on the footpath for you to put in the car.’

‘But you didn’t tell me,’ I said, ‘and I didn’t see it. Wasn’t I in the driver’s seat already?’

Her face began to crumple. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘let’s go in to class. And then I’ll drive home and get the backpack and bring it to school.’

Inside I fumed. I was meeting someone at 9.30; and I had better things to do than drive back and forth between home and school. But I gave her a hug, explained what had happened to her teacher, grumbled to another parent, and headed home.

No backpack.

I checked the house. No backpack, and I remembered having seen her carry it out of the house that morning. I checked the car again, and the veranda, and the front garden, and asked the neighbours. Still no backpack. So I made a second lunch, filled up a spare water bottle, found another dollar for the canteen, put it all in an old bag, and dropped it at school. Then I went to my meeting, half an hour late.

Later that day I searched again, to no avail. If it had been stolen, I thought it would probably have been emptied out and dumped near the railway line. So I walked to the dodgiest spot and there on the ground among the broken glass lay two forlorn loom bands. They were from a pack that she had wanted to share with friends at school. I checked a dozen or so dumpsters, hoping to find the bag itself, before I gave up.

What sort of person would steal a little kid’s backpack? It had the name of our primary school emblazoned on it; there was no way it belonged to a teenager, let alone an adult. And as I began the inventory of what had been lost, I felt more and more bewildered. What had they gained? A scuffed school backpack, useful for one school only. A dented water bottle. A grubby lunch sack. A gluten free soy free lunch: corn cakes with cheese, and a mandarin. A prep reader. A school library book. A bike lock. A little girl’s raincoat. Her favourite, irreplaceable, cardigan. And a dollar for the canteen.

It would cost us well over a hundred dollars to replace everything. And for that, someone gained a single dollar.

My bemusement turned to fury before dwindling into sadness. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be so desperate, and have so little empathy, that I’d steal what was clearly a young child’s bag. The thief had big issues to deal with. We, on the other hand, could easily replace what had been taken, and even find a new favourite cardigan. The only thing that mattered was how we handled it with our kids.

That afternoon, when they were home from school, I explained to my daughter that someone had stolen her backpack. We’d have to replace it, and everything that had been inside.

She had a cry, and a big cuddle. ‘Meanie bum,’ she said. I agreed, and said that it was right that she was angry. Nobody should take anyone’s stuff.

She was quiet for a few minutes. Then she asked, ‘Why are bad people made?’

And so I told her how I understand theodicy. All of us are sometimes good and sometimes bad, I said. Every time we make a choice for good, we strengthen that part of us. Every time we make a choice to be mean, or dishonest, or violent, we strengthen that part of us. The person who stole her bag would have made lots of choices for bad, and so that part of them was very strong; they probably just took her bag without even thinking. It wasn’t personal, I said. It wasn’t about her. And we don’t know why they made those choices; maybe things had happened in their lives that made it hard for them to choose good. I told her we could be angry at what they did, but we didn’t have to hate the person who did it. In a few days or weeks, we might even feel a bit sorry for them.

She thought for a while. Then she said, ‘Maybe they took it because they miss their mummy. Or maybe because my bag reminded them how happy they had been at primary school. But they’re still a meanie bum.’

‘They sure are,’ I said, and gave her an extra squeeze and a kiss on the top of her beloved head.

The next morning, as they were getting dressed, one of her sisters pulled out a hoodie that was getting a bit small. She turned to her younger sister and asked if she would like to have it. My five-year-old beamed and pulled it on, and it immediately became the new favourite. We bought a new backpack, lunch sack, bag tag, and everything else, and life has moved on.


Well, almost. I had left my daughter’s loom bands where they lay among the broken glass; they are slowly fading. Now I walk past them several times a week, and whenever I see them, I think about the person who stole the bag. I wonder if they miss their mummy; I wonder if they were ever happy at primary school. I give thanks for my youngest daughter’s empathic nature, so ready to think about why someone would be mean. I give thanks for my middle daughter’s thoughtful and spontaneous handing over of a hoodie when her sister needed to wear a hug. And I pray that one day the thief will experience such empathy and generosity, and be able to recognise it as gift.


  1. Prolly just an opportunistic kid, and these things arent done with meanness by kids, see it, pick it up. I wonder where your daughter gets her empathy? Its a good quality.

    1. I reckon any kid old enough to be out and about by themselves nicking stuff is old enough to know right from wrong! As for the empathy - maybe books? It takes imagination to have empathy.

  2. Our conversations about theodicy often come back to Star Wars (Anakin's indulgence of his own fear and hatred made him vulnerable to the dark side) and Frozen (the ice queen's parents nurtured fear instead of wisdom even when the trolls said it would make her gift a source of danger). Rachel

    1. Sounds like I have some movies to watch! Thanks for the tip.


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