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Children Have Empathy Built In. 3 Ways We Can Help Them Use It

Don’t Teach Empathy. Teach Thoughtfulness

So much of what I read about combatting bullying, instilling morality and teaching empathy leaves out our greatest resource: the natural inclinations of children.

Kathy, Franklyn and Connor, ages 18, 20 and 48 months respectively are playing on the other side of a floor-to-ceiling plate glass wall in a small playroom equipped with a climbing structure in the parish hall of a church.

After a good half-hour of playing on their own—climbing stairs, looking out windows, sliding down slides, running clockwise around the structure, running counter-clockwise around the structure, ducking into nooks, squeezing through crannies, pulling their little bodies up by their hands, Connor decides he needs a check-in with Martha the baby-sitter, who was sitting at a café table ten feet from the door watching all this and sipping coffee.

The door separating them, which to me is big, heavy and hard to open, is to him enormous, massive and requires all his effort. Undaunted, however, Connor pushes against it and succeeds in squeezing through. Connor covers the ten feet to Martha in no time, but three feet from her chair, Martha jumps up and rushes to the door because Connor’s little brother Franklyn, who follows Connor everywhere, is caught. The door has shut on him just as he was halfway through.

No tears, everything fine, and now the two brothers are standing by Martha with one hand on each knee. Suddenly, Connor makes for the door. He has noticed Kathy pushing on the door to get out. Martha is wise enough to let Connor be the rescuer this time. She matter-of-factly says, “Good job, Connor.”

Watching Connor at age 4 one might say—in common parlance—that Connor has been “taught empathy.”

In talking with Martha, however, I discover that it’s not that way. It is truer to say that Connor has learned many useful expressions for his natural empathy thus far in the course of his four years of life. Martha claims to have done no more or less than the kind of thing I just witnessed.

Connor has been one of Martha’s babies ever since she began baby-sitting three years ago. In an hour of watching Martha’s charges, I noticed dozens of examples of empathy in action. Here’s another one:

After 15 minutes of playing in the playroom, all three are out the door again wanting a drink. Two sippy cups stand on the table, and Franklyn takes the blue one. As he brings it up to his lips and turns away from the table, he sees Kathy. Turning back to the table, he picks up the pink cup and gives it to her. The two walk away from the table together sipping. Martha doesn’t even bother to comment on this remarkable act of thoughtfulness.

Children learn so much on their own. Most of what they need to learn–from riding a bike to writing–is best taught by coaching them in the act. However, when it comes to learning the most important skill set of life—getting along with others—we often decide to get didactic and ignore internal motivation.

This might even make some sense if adults were such experts at interpersonal conflict—but there isn’t much evidence of that. Why do we presume to “teach children right from wrong,” when we, ourselves have so much to learn on the subject?

Children are not wired to be selfish—they are actually wired so that by the age of 18 months are beginning to take another’s point of view. Children map the social world onto their brain just as they map their linguistic world. If the name of the game in their world during their first five years is about taking care of each other, and if kindness and cooperation are the norm in their first seven years of school then their continuing education in the field “social responsibility” will generally progress quite nicely. If, however, kids have been trying negotiate unsafe or uncertain environments in their early years, adult lessons will have a hard time sticking.

So what can we learn from Martha? Three things are obvious.

1)                    Don’t try to “teach empathy.” See children as social animals internally motivated to take on the lifelong challenge of harmonizing the needs of self with the needs of others. See yourself as coach, helping them learn the disciplines of playing the game of life, just as you might teach them how to play soccer.

2)                    Assume that kids like to do things for others. Act as if making a difference to others is one of the greatest natural joys a human can have and give them opportunities to do it. Let them help. In schools, don’t make “community service” something we do to teach altruism once a week, assuaging our conscience so we can get back to our normally selfish behavior the rest of the time. Ask yourself, how many times a day are children given a chance to do something for someone else?

3)                    Don’t avoid conflict. Conflict is woven into the fabric of life, and getting good at it is one of the secrets of a happy life. The more conflicts children get into the more opportunities you will have to help them learn the disciplines of diplomacy. Notice and name successes; help them analyze failures.

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10 Responses to “Children Have Empathy Built In. 3 Ways We Can Help Them Use It”

  1. Marianne Dunlap February 22, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    Montessori called it the “psychic embryo” that continues to develop after the physical embryo has finished its work and is born. Connecting to the culture in which one is born is the work of the child. Hopefully the adults in a child’s life are as aware and as kind- spirited as Martha. She is a big part of their “prepared environment.” Very helpful read, Rick. Thanks! I’d like to share it with our parents. May I?

  2. David Wees February 22, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

    I wonder, if children are naturally empathic, what drives them to lose this empathy later in life (since we know that not all people have tendencies towards empathy). Is it possible that the pressures of competition within schools drive out empathy in our children?

  3. Rick February 23, 2012 at 6:19 am #

    Marianne, yes, please share with parents. (That’s the general idea.)
    David, It’s not so much that they lose it later on, it’s that they haven’t learned what to do with it. There are some people (on the autism spectrum, say) who are not wired so that empathy comes easily. But the brain is plastic and the smart educational thing to do is to treat everyone as if, of course, they want to have good relationships with others, and that we all (all of us, haven’t you noticed) need to work at harmonizing our wants and needs with those of others. We all have the equipment and we all need to use it to get good at it.

  4. Kris Miner February 23, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

    Weaving these concepts into a training for teachers on the use of talking circles in schools! THANKS!

    Circles are a place students can do something for each other!

    Teachers can reinforce the positives of circle behavior by framing Circle time as an opportunity for students to experience that joy of doing for others.

    I believe you teach empathy by teaching listening, I am going to promote the coaching of empathy! Looking for the person who says they have interpersonal relationships all down, and can teach! : )

    Thanks!

  5. Jonathan Lovell February 24, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    Dear TGIC viewers,
    There’s a fascinating interview by Charlie Rose of VS Ramachandran (see http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/10468) that explores the possibility that human brains uniquely contain “mirror neurons” that allow us to exercise the capacity for empathy. Ramachandran is best known for the success of his “mirror therapy” at Walter Reed Hosp with Iraq and Afghani verterans who are experiencing sensations, often acutely painful, in a “phantom limb.” If Ramachandran is correct, it would give teachers a special incentive to use techniques like relaxation/guided imagery exercises that augment one’s capacity for inquiry. Make sense?

  6. Rick February 25, 2012 at 7:47 am #

    Jonathan, thank you for surfacing this interview. I will look at it right away. It is precisely this area of research that I am referring to in this article. Yes, Kris. Listening to HOW another is experiencing their empathy and/or how they are challenged to express their empathy is a great first step in coaching them toward being in right relationship with others.
    Thank you all.

  7. Peter Holleley February 26, 2012 at 9:18 am #

    Maria is a gem; Rick, please pass my contact info along and tell her I’ll pay her double to work for me (wink).

    I’d tweak her verbalization a wee bit by asking her to drop the street slang “good job” and replace it with specific validation, such as “Well done Connor on thinking of your (sister/friend) Kathy and helping her with the door.” Here those three children would’ve known exactly who did what right and may better remember the incident and its warm fuzzy feeling.

    Rick’s three admonistrations are an oh-so welcome reminder of what makes the world go round or, all too often, what brings it to a hideous halt.

    But there is a fourth: The fundamental driving force of this universe; Leadership – Followship (sic). The charming little vignette witnessed by Rick unfolded as it did largely because the children’s parents, any youngster’s number one influencers, have long demonstrated holding doors open for others.

    THANK YOU, Rick, for reminding readers that self-esteem (along with self-confidence) can not be taught! There are whole books, veritable bookshelves, that distract and mislead parents – and confuse their children – with lectures on misguided notions that these qualities can and must be taught, with contrived processes to teach them!

    Self-esteem must be learnt, built brick-by-brick or in a flash, inside the person by the person. The way to help is to be an influencer / coach and convey ones own esteem of the exact job when it is well done. Self-confidence cannot be injected like Vitamin C; one can only encourage it in another by verbalizing one’s own confidence in the other’s behaviour / outcome.

    “The Person is Not The Behaviour” is the KEY BASIC here.

    BEHAVIOUR can and should be reviewed for validation or criticism … first by the person and then by influencers (children need to be gently coached to help them discern the good from the bad from the ugly).

    Whenever a PERSON is validated or criticized something of that person’s responsibility is by-passed and she/he looses some integrity and power. The rule is “Never Evaluate For a Person” with the proviso that children need gentle guidance until they learn to do it for themselves.

    Thank you Marianne, David, Kris, Jonathan and Rick for your technical inputs. I, for one, am so glad that the scientific world is catching up with the real world.

    My words are merely the result of observations and conclusions garnered from the world’s four corners since life began; Stuff That Works. Such words have long been shared by the wise, I try to present here from a parent’s viewpoint in ways that I hope busy laymen can readily use now.

    Respectfully offered by,
    Montessori-AMI Parent Peter in Toronto, Canada.

  8. Peter Holleley February 27, 2012 at 5:50 am #

    Sorry, Martha, I called you Maria by mistake … the job offer still stands (wink).

  9. Norma February 27, 2012 at 7:07 am #

    Peter – I’m with you about dropping “good job” – that is actually a joke among the Montessorians in my life – I can almost see her giving him an M&M (like the corn that is dispensed when the Pavlovian chicken pecks the right button). My choice of verbalization might have been “that was a very kind thing to do Connor” (defining the deed as kind). As far as the blue/pink cups go – I’ve seen toddlers do this type of thing many, many times – It would have been nice if Martha would have simply role modeled the verbalization “thank you Franklyn” for Kathy. Who knows, maybe Franklyn is just showing that he knows the blue cups is his and the pink one is hers (see self-esteem below).

    The article’s use of mirror neurons is not exactly acurate either. Mirror neurons (which is a controversial subject in the first place) doesn’t mean that the child is accepting another’s point of view – here is an exerpt from naturalhistory.com.”Mirror neurons seem to have nothing in common with deliberate, effortful, and cognitive attempts to imagine being in somebody else’s shoes.” The child’s brain is picking up sequencing information at the least and making sense of someone else’s actions at the most. Some say it is mirror neurons that may be why children are able to learn how to do things so many things quickly in infancy.

    The issue of self-esteem has also been forwarded. I have always understood self-esteem to be the thing that comes from being able to do stuff (accomplish). The more the child is able to do (why independence is such a big slice of the Montessori pie) the stronger their self-esteem(confidence certainly plays in there somewhere). I like the way you put it: “inside the person by the person.” I think it often gets into slicing and dicing semantics. On one hand, since adults (whether actively or passively) help children learn how to do things, self-esteem comes as a bi-product of teaching.

    Go Bloggers!

    Norma

  10. Rick March 15, 2012 at 7:34 am #

    Peter and Norma, thank you for taking the time to make such lengthy and important contributions to the topic. Thank you all. Good stuff.

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