Yesterday, I was taking my son to preschool when a store employee gifted him a small stuffed-dog keychain. He was beyond thrilled. He spent the rest of the walk to preschool rolling it over and over in his hand, examining the twist tie holding it to an index card, and noting the tag sewn into the dog’s foot. He talked to me non-stop about his plans for the dog, how his similarly shaped keychain bear could now be friends with the keychain dog, how he would set it on his pillow at night, and how grateful he was for the unexpected gift.
Then he told me, “Mom. When you go home, cut this tie and cut the tag. Keep the tie and the tag. I put them in my treasure box. Put the dog on my pillow by my bear. You don’t have to do it right away because I not be home for a long time.”
His comments caught me by surprise. He was actively placing himself in my shoes – recognizing that I do something different than he does when he is at school. He was also holding in his mind the amount of time it would take to cut the tags and arrange the dog with his bear on his pillow. AND, he was comparing that amount of time with the amount of time he would be at school. Following this instantaneous set of mental gymnastics, he concluded that I would not have to rush in order to prepare his new toy for residence in his bedroom.
I could take my time.
Another story. This morning, we were walking to school again, and my son was collecting leaves. He found two fire-red maple leaves that captured his attention immediately. “I put these in the stroller. Then I have one for me and one for S. Then T be angry and sad because she not have one. So I give her one, and she be happy!”
Again, I was struck by his level of perspective taking and empathy. He thought about his sisters who weren’t with us at the time. He thought of their strong desire to have leaves like his. He thought about giving the leaves to one sister, and how that might make the other sister feel. Then, he recognized his power to act on behalf of his other sister’s feelings and make her happy.
And we say young children are egocentric?
Of course, my son has dozens of moments throughout the day when he acts less altruistically, but I share these stories to highlight one simple fact.
The dominant narrative we hold for children is that they are self-centered, egocentric, and incapable of thinking empathetically about other people.
This isn’t true.
What’s more, we grow what we look for. When we expect children to be self-absorbed tricksters aimed on bulldozing their way over anyone who tries to stop them, we find plenty of evidence to support this.
But, if we start looking for the moments of connection, the times that our young ones reach out in compassion and empathy towards others, we would find evidence of those moments in abundance.
Let’s expect a different story.
- While reading to children, notice the facial expressions of a young captive audience as the characters are injured, lonely, scared, happy, fearless, brave, or victorious.
- During dress up and free play, pay attention to the emotional complexity of the scripts mimicking those of real-life.
- When one child cries upon leaving her parents, notice the young toddlers gather close, and see the peers who offer their own special blankets and security toys as comfort.
- At special events like birthdays or while celebrating the birth of a new baby, hear children share stories of their own birthdays and times when their families grew.
Let’s expect a different story – different than the myths our collective unconscious tells us about the way children act and behave.
Let’s expect a different story – different than the imaginary child we hold in our minds, the one who is incapable of feeling for others, and instead, look for the authentic, compassionate, connected child in front of us.
Let’s expect different.