The Generosity of Children
The kindergartners stood in a circle on the grass, in the park one brisk afternoon, leaving the slides and monkey bars empty. Curious, their teachers approached and heard them softly singing one of their gentle, circle time songs from class. Drawing closer, they realized the children encircled a dead bird. One child later said, “We wanted to sing to the bird on his journey to heaven.”
This is one of countless true stories I know of children spontaneously exercising their natural generosity. When nurtured at home and school, their capacity for kindness and compassion increases and contributes to each child’s success. Related qualities of empathy, emotional resilience and connection are key factors in their ability to have healthy relationships, communicate well and develop and sustain higher order thinking.
Dr. Maria Montessori says, “When individuals develop normally, they plainly feel a love not only for things, but also for all living creatures. This love is not something that is taught; it is the natural result of leading the right kind of life. Love is not the cause but the effect of the normal development of the individual.”
Why did the bird evoke these children’s love instead of fear? I believe it is because they were part of a school and parent community that intentionally practices kindness. In his new book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson says, “Whatever we repeatedly sense, feel and believe makes real changes in our neural networks.”
The original Latin word for education is “educare,” which means literally “to lead out.” In its original sense, education means not just to lead the child into the world, but to lead or tease out the virtues that lie inside each of them. Hanson teaches a practice called “taking in the good,” stating that dwelling on a positive experience or memory for just 20 seconds embeds it in our minds, a result of the brain’s neuroplasticity. Done multiple times a day, this helps children wire their brains for greater empathy, happiness and well-being, even when coping with sad or difficult events.
This has certainly been true in my 30-year experience as an educator and curriculum developer. I see firsthand the positive, cumulative effect of lessons on compassion and kindness that include practicing silent mindfulness for a few minutes each day to develop inner awareness; exposing children to fables and real life stories of helping others; acknowledging and expressing gratitude to oneself and others; appreciating each person’s unique gifts, not promoting constant competition and doing hands-on projects that help others.
Whether we call this approach developing the heart of compassion or rewiring the brain, I have witnessed hundreds of children who engage in these kinds of practices become young adults with much greater inner calm, contentment and confidence than their peers, the very outcomes Hanson describes.
It is important to bear in mind that this is necessary for us to overcome the brain’s negativity bias. Hanson says, “This bias evolved to help ancient animals survive, but today it makes us feel needlessly frazzled, worried, irritate, lonely, inadequate and blue.” The negative emotions and violent images expressed through the media and in popular culture reinforce it.
This gives us all the more reason to intentionally cultivate our capacity for “taking in the good” together. As we build up this inner reservoir of goodness inside our children, we create emotional resilience to withstand negative influences.
For the year-end holidays, maybe the greatest gifts we can give each other are big hugs and family times, when everyone is encouraged to share their gratitude and ways they appreciate each other. Remember to pause and savor each good memory for at least 20 seconds.
Andrew Kutt is the founder and head of Oneness-Family School, an international, progressive Montessori school in Chevy Chase, M.D., for children age 2 through eighth grade. For more information, visit OnenessFamilySchool.org.