An interesting article in last week’s New York Times addressed the question of empathy in children, and especially how to foster good and charitable impulses in our young people. A growing body of study is devoted to these impulses, which together constitute something called “prosocial” behavior, which is the opposite of antisocial behavior:
The capacity to notice the distress of others, and to be moved by it, can be a critical component of . . . prosocial behavior, actions that benefit others: individuals, groups or society as a whole.
Not many column inches are given to the question of how, exactly, we can help to develop these qualities in our children, although there seems to be some consensus that it starts at a very early age. Teaching kids about the consequences of their behaviors, demonstrating how what they do can make their peers feel bad or good—these are the essential building blocks of a basic empathy that may later evolve into a caring emotional foundation.
But there’s more to it than that:
[The ingredients of empathy] include the ability to perceive others’ distress, the sense of self that helps sort out your own identity and feelings, the regulatory skills that prevent distress so severe it turns to aversion, and the cognitive and emotional understanding of the value of helping.
In other words, kids need to learn not just how to care; they also need to learn why caring is important in the first place. Like so many other aspects of child development, this one requires developing a balance between the needs of the self and the needs of others; how to understand your own feelings without tuning out the world around you.
In our Los Angeles preschool, we believe encouraging prosocial behavior is a big part of our mandate and mission. Helping our students learn about the needs of others, and guiding them as they start to navigate these feelings with grace, is just about the most important lesson we can impart at this age. It all comes down to those executive functions Paul Tough has been getting so much press about these days: character is destiny, and preschool is often the first place children get to see such things outside the home.
This week especially, in light of the unthinkable events in Connecticut, we’ll take an extra moment to hug those kids and express what caring really looks like.