A few weeks ago I was visiting a child care center, observing a classroom full of active 2-year-olds. During my observation I witnessed more empathy from an innocent 2-year-old than I had from any adult in a very long time.
The observation began with the teacher gathering the children for a large group session which included singing and book reading. The children, however, were not interested in these activities. One tiny girl, Mary, was convinced that her father was picking her up for a special lunch. She was certain they were going to have ice cream. Then, Tommy wanted to share a story about ice cream with the class. As large group time continued each child needed to tell his story about ice cream.
As chaos began to reign in the classroom, the director slowly opened the door and with her was a beautiful little girl named LaShawn and her mother. LaShawn was clinging to her mother while she stared nervously at her new teacher. The director introduced LaShawn to the teacher, mentioned the child’s schedule, and soon after, the director and the mother simply left the room. LaShawn never had the opportunity to tell her mother goodbye, and her mother never told LaShawn she would be back to get her. LaShawn was heartbroken. The teacher tried to console her but she was also trying to stop a fight, sing a song and regain some order in the classroom.
Tension began mounting. After a while, I observed a quiet little boy stand up, walk to his cubby and retrieve his blanket. He sat next to LaShawn, looked at her and held out his blanket. What I saw next touched my heart and I found myself swallowing a lump in my throat. LaShawn accepted the blanket and began sobbing into it while the quiet little boy patted her back. The teacher was busy trying to stop some biting and glanced over to pair. Seeing that LaShawn had someone with her, the teacher moved her attention to the more rowdy ones in the class. After a while, LaShawn calmed down and began glancing around her new environment with some curiosity. The quiet little boy never left her side.
For many years, researchers believed young children were not able to go beyond their own feelings to help another. But new research is showing that children as young as two begin to develop concern for others and will try to comfort them. A hug, a pat or simply standing next to a peer who is in distress is a way to show care and concern. When the teacher was unable to provide comfort, the quiet little boy was able to say, “I care” by offering his own piece of reassurance and encouragement. I felt blessed to witness such a powerful show of empathy and love. The simple acknowledgement of hurt and fear was all LaShawn needed to be able to move forward with her day. Without using spoken language, the boy was able to communicate comfort with an offering of his most prized possession.