I opened the door just enough to hear Georgie talking to Pa. "Be careful. It's icy. Come this way. I don't want you to fall!" I took a deep breath because Georgie was clearly expressing kindness and maybe even compassion, as Merriam-Webster defines it. Compassion is the ability to feel for another person; sympathy for the hardship someone else experienced.
It isn't completely surprising that he might be thinking about slipping on ice, since his grandfather had a terrible fall the year before Georgie was born, and he's heard the story about the pins and screws in Pa's hip. But this concern today was original and belonged to the moment. It showed genuine caring for someone else.
When kids are little, we check off those important physical, social and emotional milestones. Do they sit at about 6 months, crawl a little later, walk at around a year, speak by 18 months? We're relieved when we see them taking turns, identifying sad and happy faces and putting their own feelings into words.
But what about showing kindness and sensitivity toward others? What do these milestones look like? Is there a continuum of learning? Kindness. Sensitivity. Compassion. Empathy. These terms are often used interchangeably and seem so subjective and hard to measure.
According to Dr. Gwen Dewar's blog, Parenting Science, researchers have tried to shed some light on how to identify them.
Merriam-Webster defines empathy as the ability to walk in the shoes of another person and imagine what they're going through. Jean Decety and Jason Cowell describe empathy as 3 different processes that develop at different rates:
1. Emotional sharing- a child shows feelings of distress when seeing distress in another person. Dr. Dewar uses the example of a 30 month old who sees a parent shivering and brings a blanket. This seems a lot like kindness and concern. We all know it when we see it!
2. Empathic concern- a child wants to take care of someone who is upset or tries to help a less capable person. Two examples might be a toddler kissing a crying friend or a child expressing concern for an adult, as Georgie did. These seem like examples of compassion.
3. Perspective-taking - a child who can imagine and describe what another person is feeling. Ultimately, older children may be able to experience "cognitive empathy" and may be able to decide what the distressed person can do to feel better.
Research also shows that children can be coached to become more kind, compassionate and empathetic. “It’s kind of like weight training. We found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help", writes Dr. Ritchie Davidson , University of Wisconsin. It's also been demonstrated that kindness and compassion are contagious. People who have experienced kind acts are more likely to "pay it forward."
Here are a few common sense suggestions from experts to increase kindness and compassion in kids:
1. Model what you hope to see. Kids learn what they live.
2. Whenever possible, make explicit emotional connections for your grandchildren. For example, say... "Johnny is feeling so sad because his brother is being a bully. I wonder what Johnny can do about this?"
3. Point out and applaud situations when your grandchild is kind or shows empathy. These rewards build on themselves. (But you already know that).
4. Write thank you notes and have them do the same. Seems old fashioned now... but it's still important.
5. Talk about feelings whenever you think there's a lesson to be learned.
6. Play music and discuss the feelings it evokes. Look at art and draw together. Talk about what they make you feel and what you hope others will feel when they see your picture.
7. Read stories. It's the obvious way to talk about values and what families hold dear.
Coaches run soccer drills, teachers teach a curriculum. Music, art, dance, crafts, nature studies all heighten sensitivity to the world around us and the feelings of composers and artists. And hopefully, we all teach kindness.
It would seem that families are often best at reinforcing these. As grandparents, we may be in a unique position to "pay forward" kindness, compassion and empathy so children carry on these values. As Maya Angelou said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
I won't forget how I felt today when Georgie showed concern and compassion for his grandfather. Perhaps it was a milestone for him, as he strengthens his "compassion muscle".
These days, we're all hoping for a kinder more compassionate world. At our ages we may forget a lot of other things... but feeling the kindness of a grandchild isn't one of them.