What I Learned from a Three-Year-Old: Compassion Has to be TaughtGale Glassner Twersky
So far I have raised three children through to adulthood. I have taught high school English and Speech Arts/Drama and coached a forensics team (Individual Events Speech Team). I taught swimming and horseback riding to youngsters of all ages and I also taught fourth grade Sunday school. I have served thousands of people, including children, as a hypnotherapist. You would think that I have seen it all by now. No, that is not really the case. Just recently, my three-year-old granddaughter provided me with a totally new epiphany that keenly presented itself within a stark reality. Allow me to share this moment and its broader meaning. In fact, I hope to share it with all parents, teachers and anyone dealing with children. It reminded me how we must always be open to new learning coming from any place and from anyone, regardless the age of the individual.
I was observing my three-year-old granddaughter, Marla at play with her little five-year-old cousin, Andrea. They were playing with an outdoor water table toy that contained floating toys, little plastic dolls and plastic miniature slides. They were all playing in a cooperative manner until Marla (by the way, names have been changed for privacy) decided to take a small pail of the cold water and splash it onto her cousin’s feet. Her cousin Andrea immediately scowled, “Don’t do that” to which little Marla immediately responded by repeating the same act of splashing Andrea’s feet with another pail full of cold water. Again, came Andrea’s angry reaction, “No, stop it!” Without hesitation, again, Marla filled up the pail of water with a defiant twinkle in her eye and was just about to unload another assault of water, when I caught my little angel’s attention and stopped her mid-stream.
“Marla,” I calmly and softly explained, “Andrea is telling you that what you are doing is hurting her and making her feel badly. Would you want her to do that to you if getting that cold water poured on your feet, made you feel badly? Marla froze like a freeze frame for about five seconds as she processed this thought. Then she abruptly stopped what she was doing and with a swift about face, left the water table to find something new to occupy her unlimited energy.
At first glance I had interpreted Marla”s choice to repeat pouring the water on her cousin as an insensitive, malicious act that Marla seemed to be enjoying in a rather sadistic way. Actually, it was nothing of the kind. Marla was seeing it just as a game of fun. Pour the water on Andrea and watch Andrea get angry. She had no awareness of the pain she was inflicting. Marla was probably too young to have learned much about empathy and compassion. Yet when I explained it that way, she fully understood what she was doing was not fun for her cousin. Rather, Marla understood that with her repeated splashing, she was making another person feel really badly in a physical way. Then she thought about it and must have imagined how it would be for her to be in Andrea’s place, having someone make her feel badly. The final resolution Marla made was simply to stop the harmful behavior and move onto something else that would be fun and not hurtful.
How many times do we misinterpret our children’s behaviors and assess they are intentionally mean or ornery? We may judge them as bad or a discipline problem. Perhaps we need to focus more on our communication skills with our youngsters and learn from their perspectives rather than make assumptions from our own. Besides, what struck me so powerfully was the realization that compassion and empathy may not be inborn. No, we are born with the fear of heights but not with the instinctive understanding of compassion and empathy. Compassion and empathy need to be taught to children just as unequivocally as you would teach them to brush their teeth or wash their hands. We as parents, teachers, coaches, etc. need to make it a priority to teach compassion and empathy. The younger a child learns it, the better for him/her and the better for all of us.