Man walks into a room with a clothesline across it, takes a handful of clothespins out of a basket and starts pinning up clothes. A mother and her 18-month-old son are sitting on the floor watching. After pinning several items, the man accidentally drops a pin on the floor. He then pretends to reach over the clothesline to try to pick up the dropped pin, but his arms just aren’t long enough. The 18-month-old watches the man struggle for few seconds, then leaves his mother, goes over to the clothespin, picks it off the floor and holds it up to the man, who takes it and says thank you. The boy goes back to his mother on his own.
This and many moments like it have occurred under experimental situations in the last few years demonstrating that one of our culture’s deeply held convictions—children are naturally selfish and have to be taught empathy—is false. Thirty-some years of working with grade school children have taught me the same thing. A couple of weeks ago a former colleague told me his own story about these social animals.
At a Boys and Girls Club in San Francisco over spring vacation Cam and Aiden, two second graders from a private school, were throwing a football around with kindergarteners Maya and Jayden, when four public school 10-year-olds came over and asked if they could play. A teacher, anxious about what might happen, decided to stay and watch. He thought he would at least have to organize the teams and referee to keep the younger kids safe, but he soon discovered how wrong he was.
Cam quickly organized everyone into teams: private vs. public, and the eight young people launched seriously into a game of touch football with other activities swirling around them in the large gymnasium.
The teacher was concerned that the teams were unfair; the older kids were so much bigger. But again he was wise enough to wait and see. The younger students quickly realized that Aiden and Maya were too speedy and shifty to be caught, and they began improvising handoffs and reverses executed by quarterback Jayden and directed by Cam. Jayden hardly came up to the waist of the opponents, yet time and again he was able to throw the ball just over their hands, either Maya or Aiden would race to grab it and take off. The game continued without let-up for an hour and a half.
But what impressed the teacher most was the students’ ability to resolve conflicts. They collectively decided how they would handle kicking extra points and agreed that certain markings on the walls would be goalposts. From time to time the game would be halted by a big disagreement about rules or whether someone had been touched or gone out of bounds. Each time the game stopped until the dispute was resolved.
Several times the teacher thought he would have to mediate, but each time he discovered that the students, themselves, had matters well in hand. The little ones confidently debated issues with strangers a foot taller than them, and each time they all agreed on a resolution or a do-over. Nobody was going to let too much time get wasted before they could play again.
The game attracted the attention of some other adults who watched the proceedings together for a while. “How is it that are these younger ones are doing so well?” asked one club worker?
“Because they’re being a better team!” answered another.
Of course, it was good that the teacher was watching. There are times when children need adult intervention. But why do adults think children won’t learn to be kind if we don’t teach them? Certainly not because adults are so good at it. A little self-awareness would be appropriate here. In our culture adults need to bring in lawyers to handle the dirty work of conflict precisely because we hate it and are bad at it.
At their childish level kids can often do better on their own. If children are not doing any better on their own, perhaps they have been watching adults and are mirroring back what they see.
We are social beings. Being happy and successful in life requires being thoughtful of others, reading other minds, finding common interests, harmonizing your wants with theirs, and engaging in collective action. Homo sapiens would never have gotten this far if we weren’t naturally good at cooperation.
Acting as if children are naturally selfish is a self-fulfilling enterprise.