Sunday, January 17, 2010

raising compassionate children

This is one of those topics that I've wanted to post about for quite awhile now, but have had trouble finding the time to address such a vast, vitally important issue. The recent disaster in Haiti has brought some of this type of discussion to the fore-front of topics on the few parenting/home education e-groups I'm involved in, and has allowed me to sort of half-write this post in the process. So I figured now was the time to address it here on my blog.

One of the primary reasons that I homeschool my children is my hope that they can avoid having to face some of the more hardening aspects of the "real world" before they are mature enough to handle the knowledge that the world isn't always sunshine and roses. Part of my responsibility in making that decision is to lay the groundwork to help them internalize the understanding of their place in the world, and the responsibility of compassionate action towards others, so that when they are faced with the hard realities of life, they can move in a positive direction to make the world community they live in a better place, rather than being dragged down by the despair that can come when a person feels that they have no power to change things.

It is my understanding that children's world views develop in a natural progression. At first, in the toddler and preschool years, children are focused solely on their self and their own needs. As they progress into Kindergarten and First Grade, they expand their self-view to include their families. Coming into second grade, they are beginning to see themselves as a part of a larger community that includes neighbors and friends in addition to their own family. As they continue through the elementary grades, their view expands, until they reach their teens, when they understand that they are part of a broader community, the world-wide community that includes all of humanity.

My children are just coming into the age where they are looking towards how they fit into their local community. Friends and families outside of our own little circle are starting to matter to them, and as a result, they are starting to pay attention to how we, their family, treat others within our community. They notice the actions we take, and they notice the actions we don't take, all the while internalizing these as the norms for our family.

At the same time, they are developmentally still in the experience of their bodies. The things that are real for them are those things that they can touch and feel. The entire homeschooling method I chose is based on this reality, making sure that the kids' content is in a format that they can process and work effectively with. There will be plenty of conceptual learning later, when they are developmentally ready for it.

Given these parameters, it's easy to see how exposing them to something like the horrors in Haiti would only serve to scare them. They would naturally bring the information provided to them into their own understanding, which would result not in empathy for the people in that situation, but in worry about the same thing happening here in their community. No amount of explanation or reassurance would prevent them from converting such an overwhelming concept into something they could relate to in their own experience. They're just not capable of more than that at this age.

Nor are they capable of understanding the very abstract concept of monetary donations. Just the concept of money (where it comes from, why it's needed, the fact that some people have more than they need and some don't have anywhere near enough, or why) is complicated enough, but add in wiring money via text messages to people who we'll never see receive it.... it's just not real to kids. Even a direct transfer of money confuses my kids. For instance, the other day I gave a man standing outside the courthouse a dollar so he could take the bus home. My kids had a million questions -- Why did he need a dollar? Why didn't he have one? Why did I give him one? No matter how many answers I gave, they still had more questions and I don't think ever did quite figure out what had transpired. Yet simple, direct donation is within their understanding, no explanation needed ("That woman was cold, so Mommy gave her a jacket.").

Sad pictures from halfway around the world will only scare young children. The man on the corner with the "Hungry, need work." sign is part of their community. He's real -- they can talk to him, shake his hand, ask his name, touch the piece of cardboard he holds over his head when it rains. Bringing him a cup of soup or an umbrella is an obvious gesture that the kids can understand. They can watch him eat a sandwich we give him; they can watch him put on a hat.

And this is how to lay the groundwork for compassionate aid in our children that will bloom and expand in the future to extend to their world community. Providing a daily example of compassion and direct giving will make helping others part of who they are and what they do. There are plenty of direct-aid services that young children can help provide. They can hand out plates and napkins at the soup kitchen, they can pack grocery bags at the food pantry, they can help deliver toys to needy families at the holidays. And most importantly, they can see their parents responding kindly to those in their community on a daily basis.

In a few years, the kids will have the understanding and development necessary to learn about need beyond our own local communities, and will be able to participate in fund-raising and other more conceptual type aid. Sadly, there will always be need somewhere, always famine to fight, always disasters to overcome. The world will always need our children; our responsibility as their parents is to raise them in a way that allows them to be capable of responding to this need.


Christine said...

Great post!

Alyss said...

This is absolutely fantastic. I can hardly deal with the disaster in Haiti, I can't imagine a child, with their concrete view of the world, making any sense of it at all. Your boys are lucky to have you for their mom, that's for sure :)

taimarie said...

Thank you for this. I agree wholeheartedly and am often surprised how uncommon this thinking is in our society. As a teacher I was often encouraged to teach children about social and environmental problems to "build awareness." But what good is awareness if it closes down the heart while it is being built?

Chuck said...

Well said! I remember how careful Beck and I were when 911 happened and Ariel started to inquire about what happened. I want my children to be compassionate but I also want to protect them and their fragile minds too.

Stephanie Clark said...

What an insightful post! I'm a homeschool grad that was browsing blogs when I stumbled upon yours. You did a great job in concisely explaining a major reason why so many of us choose to homeschool our kids: evil is out there, we can't hide them from it forever, but we can certainly prepare them to handle it better than the modern institutional school system can.