“Learning is a result of listening, which in turn leads to even better listening and attentiveness to the other person. In other words, to learn from the child, we must have empathy, and empathy grows as we learn.” ~ Alice Miller
This blog post unfolded for me in a rather serendipitous way. First of all, with Valentine’s Day fast approaching, in my class we were enjoying the usual kinds of arts and crafts that children like to do and that introduce them to the social habit of giving gifts to the people we love. So, each child had the opportunity to create a collaged heart using construction paper, glue and bits of ribbon, foil and tissue. At around the same time, some co-workers asked me to join them in making a display of hearts with written descriptions of the children’s various acts of kindness. Since I had already planned to provide some kind of learning experience about empathy (to meet a specific curriculum goal) I considered how to approach this topic with children, while keeping it somehow connected to the idea of creating “hearts of kindness.”
Next, I began a search for some images that would give the children something meaningful to describe and discuss. I found six, which included pictures of: a young man carrying groceries for an elderly woman with a cane; a crying baby; a person in the hospital; a bully making someone cry; two children having a conflict over toys; and a dog shivering in the rain. I first showed the group one picture and asked them what they saw, how the person in the picture felt, and what we could do to help the person feel better. Then I repeated this activity with individual children, scribing their words to capture their ideas. What struck me was the complexity and sophistication of some of the responses I got. I also noted whether or not the children indicated some kind of emotional connection to the person who was sad, or if they offered a caring solution to the problem. One of the children asked why we were doing this activity, and I simply replied that what they had to say was important to me, and I care about what they think.
Still, something was missing from this experience. Then I reflected on some materials introduced to me at a workshop on children’s mental health – I’d needed to find more effective ways to help children to self regulate, to deal with conflict, to understand and express their feelings. Suddenly I remembered that the instructor had loaned me some picture books about the range of emotions with stories that children could relate to easily. There happened to be a book about empathy, and again, I thought: serendipity. I read When I Care About Others by Cornelia Maude Spelman, and at last felt that I had provided for the children an engaging and relevant experience that extended and enriched the sentiments represented by the paper hearts we had decorated. Paper hearts will always be an important part of Valentine’s Day with children I teach. But this was a beautiful opportunity to have a dialogue with young children about empathy, and what caring for others can mean, not just on Valentine’s Day, but every day.
This post is dedicated to Dessy Marinova, who helped me look into children’s hearts with new eyes.