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.