“Hey, would you help me…”
Say this to children, and you will usually get an enthusiastic, “Sure.”
If you get a negative reaction, I can think of several possible causes off the top of my head:
- It feels imposed rather than offered as an opportunity.
- It’s a job you hate and, therefore, you are actually taking advantage of them.
- They feel singled out, and not for greatness.
- They need a little seducing.
- You might have caught them at a bad time, in which case you might consider saying something like, “Would there be a better time for you?” (Next time you will be more sensitive to the mission they are on.)
- You have already made the mistake of giving the lecture on social obligations, and said something stupid like: “You kids! All you ever want is rights. You have to learn that for every right there is a responsibility.” Maybe, they sense that your request was not really in the free will department, but more in the obedience department.
- They know you think they are selfish.
Beth, a kindergarten teacher at one of my schools, once said: “I see any unused ability in my classroom as an incipient behavior problem,” and she understood the natural empathy in children to be her greatest resource.
I read in the blogosphere that parents should teach children empathy. No, we shouldn’t. Children have empathy; the best way to educate it is to utilize it.
As Beth and all other good educators know, empathy is one of their greatest abilities, and the origin of some of their greatest passions. Their brains are designed to know how others feel. They are wired with mirror neurons; when someone else is hurt, they feel it. By eighteen months they know that another person might want something different from what they want, and are inclined to give them what they want, rather than what they would choose for themselves.
When a small child investigates an object, one of the moves he always makes is to hold it out to the adult. This is our chance to play the game of give and take. Take it. Say “Thank you, for the spoon,” and give it back. When they can talk, they will say “Thank you,” too.
Rather than trying to “teach” children empathy we would do better to act as if we know they are already wired for it, see our homes are hotbeds of empathy and give them opportunities to put their empathy into action—like, say, asking them for help. We also know that children rise (or fall) to our expectations of them. It would be smart to assume they care about others and are working on the never-ending task of understanding other points of view.
Our culture gets in the way here. So steeped are we in seeing the individual as self-determining, self-serving, and self-maximizing, that we tend to see children as selfish. But children know what many adults in our culture often forget: the happiness of others is inextricably connected to our own. By the time children walk in the door of a kindergarten classroom they have been practicing the art of harmonizing their own needs, wants and interests with those of others for over 40,000 hours. Talk about an ability! And Beth always counted on it. Her students were always doing things for her, doing things for others, serving the community. Imagine the ambiance.
Self-centered doesn’t have to mean selfish. Some of the happiest children I have seen over the years are those engaged in real work that matters to someone else. Kids are often honored to be asked to take on a grown-up responsibility. My three-year-old grandson’s favorite line is, “I like to work.”
Children want to matter; they want to make a difference; they want to please. They are eager to be admitted into the adult world of work, unless of course the adult understanding of work is distasteful and to be avoided, in which case…duh.
Adults think they are sending children to school (as if to a sweat shop) to learn the three R’s and to climb the ladder of success. Children want to go to school to be with other children, to make friends, to learn more about their capabilities,…and also to learn stuff. When we honor the genius in children, we find there is plenty of room for a meeting of these two minds.