February is the designated month of love. It is a time when we remember to send candy, roses and cards filled with (usually) mushy expressions of love and devotion to all those we love.
In schools, children will be busy making heart-filled cards for daddies and mommies in time for Valentine’s Day. But more than just teaching children how to cut and paste and decorate a beautiful card for their parents, good teachers are well aware of the importance of teaching compassion to young children which indirectly molds their conscience.
Studies show that the critical period for the development of conscience is the first three years of life (Cozolino 2006; Szalavitz & Perry 2010). During this time, brain structures necessary for interpreting social events, experiencing compassion, and making decisions necessary for conscience are being shaped and connected between the limbic system in the center of the brain and the prefrontal cortex. Together with the development of a conscience, is the development of compassion and sympathy, followed by empathy.
The positive experiences educators share with young children —hugging, touching, smiling, dancing, sharing, laughing, and guiding—invite them to care about themselves and others.
“When these experiences happen before a child’s fourth birthday, they can set that child on a course toward bringing happiness into the lives of others,” says Charles Smith, PhD, professor emeritus and a parent educator in the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, Kansas as well as author of Beyond I’m Sorry, The Educator’s Role In Preschoolers’ Emergence of Conscience.
Children imitate our behavior. When we shout in anger, tenderly comfort a child, or cringe in fear, our children are likely to follow our example. Children also live up to our expectations: If we expect two-year-olds to be terrible, they will be. If we expect six-year-olds to make good choices, they will.
Julia Luckenbill, MD, a Child Development Demonstration Lecturer at the Center for Child and Family Studies Laboratory School at the University of California, Davis contends that infants and toddlers are far more compassionate than we once thought. Although their tempers are short and may still have difficulty with sharing, they are capable of being compassionate.
Here, she offers some classroom tips she has used to help infants and toddlers become pro-social, and which families can try at home.
Be respectful, patient, and loving to your infants and toddlers and everyone else. Infants imitate what they see. Model saying “please” and “thank you,” touching gently, using your words, using a calm voice, cleaning up your messes, helping others, and sharing your things. Example is, “Thank you for the Cheerio, would you like some of my raisins?”
Media is powerful. Read books about feelings with positive social interactions and discuss them. If your child watches television, watch too, and talk about the situations and emotions that happen in the shows, especially if the actions are antisocial.
When people are upset, model compassion – talk about the problem and offer help. “That boy fell off the climber, let’s go see if he’s ok. His daddy picked him up and the boy stopped crying. Let’s see if they need a band-aid …”
Model touching gently on pets.
Guide toddlers who are rough towards others buy teaching them to use “gentle hands” rather than pushing. “The puppy is crying because you pulled his fur – touch him like this, that’s gentle. Let me show you how. Yes, that’s gentle, he likes that better.”
Point out kindness to others.
“He liked it when you gave him the flower, see his smile? That was kind of him to hand you the ball.”
Point out social mistakes. “He just pushed you out of the way. I think he doesn’t have the words yet to tell you that he wants to play with the balls.”
Point out your own mistakes, too. “I made a mistake, I bumped her with your stroller – I’m sorry.”
Stay close and guide your child as she navigates the complex world of feelings. Babies and toddlers will have strong feelings, make mistakes, feel possessive, seek autonomy, and struggle to control their impulses. Expect them to try and to make mistakes. Respect that all people may need time to get calm and composed before they are willing to talk about upsetting things. “You got so mad you threw the cup. Next time you can hand it to me.”
Parents and teachers make a big difference in how children approach life. We know that the most important things in children’s lives are difficult to measure and we may not see the long-term impact of what we do.
Our contributions are combined with those of families and of all the teachers who went before and will follow after us. Even so, we are all a part of our children’s lives especially in the early years, when it makes the most difference. We should never forget that we contribute to the foundation for conscience of our children and put into motion what may gradually become an enduring path of compassion and love in their lives.