I’ve often wondered if it was harder being the parent of a biter or a “bitee,” and I frequently found myself in the awkward position of solving this great question with friends who were, unfortunately, the mothers of my toddler’s victims. There were many.

We would hash out the possible reasons why my sweet, nearly bald ginger couldn’t resist the fresh meat of her co-toddlers (too excited, too frustrated or some other reason), and then I would sheepishly ask, “How bad was the bite this time?”

I still run into parents who remind me that my daughter bit their kid. They say this with cheer and forgiveness in their voice. They laugh and I smile. I assure them that she doesn’t bite anymore and, of course, I apologize for my feisty toddler, who is now 18.

And then there was the time my daughter’s caregiver shared, at our first child-development session, that he would like to see more empathy. She was 2 years old.

When I told my own mother about this report card, she laughed and suggested that I shouldn’t take this damning assessment too seriously.

I could, she said, probably just keep doing what we were doing by surrounding her with love and role models who did not bite each other.

At the age of 2, my daughter might not have had the ability to imagine herself in someone else’s shoes, but she witnessed it every day in the actions of our friends and family. I guess I figured that if she hung around these folks long enough, she might get the hang of it.

I now know that this caregiver was probably following the child-rearing philosophy of Jean Piaget. Empathy, being a key marker in this belief system, is defined as having the ability to share someone else’s feelings. In the case of 2-year-olds, it means imagining themselves, literally, in another toddler’s location.

Last weekend, I had the honor of seeing my daughter and her new college friends support each other through a life-altering tragedy. As a group – and, in their particular case, a dance troupe – they held each other up and cried and cried and cried.

Frederick and I, who had traveled to the Midwest to see a weeklong dance gala, were suddenly part of this close-knit support team. We offered what we could.

“We will drive you anywhere.” “We will feed all of you.” “We have credit cards.”

There is never a good time to lose a loved one, but loss happens every day. For my daughter’s bereaved friend, life hit him full on in the middle of a weeklong dance event – one that cast him front and center as the star of the show.

I had the honor of watching this strong, handsome dancer move through his grief. A young man who was capable of holding up at least two humans while moving gracefully across the floor was held up emotionally by his entire dance community.

He danced in all eight performances. He danced because it is the thing he loves the most. He danced because he was surrounded by love. He danced because he couldn’t do anything else.

How blessed he was, I thought, to have his art and his family of friends when he most needed them.

All this sadness got me thinking about empathy and grace. In this town in the middle of America, I found a book about both: “The Art of Grace,” by Sarah L. Kaufman.

Ms. Kaufman, a dance critic for The Washington Post, explores the idea that we, as a society, have lost our appreciation of grace. Citing celebrities and leaders like Cary Grant, Smokey Robinson, Audrey Hepburn and Nelson Mandela, she suggests that knowing where our body is in relation to our space and to another person’s contributes to a more civilized society.

Watching this young man move on stage, knowing that he was heartbroken, seemed the perfect proof of her point and the best demonstration of grace and empathy on and off stage.

“In life, as in art, the beautiful moves in curves.” – Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton

Jolene McGowan lives and works in Portland with her husband, daughter and dog and has no plans to leave, ever. She can be contacted at:

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