The founder of the Humane Farming Association, Bradley Miller, has a quotation circulating in the world of memes these days. It states that “teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child, as it is to the caterpillar.” I saved this meme because I happen to agree with it. In my work with children, I believe its lesson goes right to the heart of an important human trait that requires formation – the quality of empathy.
Empathy in children is a hot research topic and a subject of great practical importance for families, schools and communities. It is also a crucial component of social intelligence and arguably the basis for morality. In a school, the ability to be in tune with the feelings, needs and perspectives of others is important to the promotion of a healthy learning environment.
This ability to feel another creature’s pain—or at least imagine its pain in a vivid, personal way – is empathy at its most basic level. Working in community with children is an opportunity for parents and teachers to support one another in forming thoughtful, helpful and caring kids. To be successful in this endeavour, the cultivation of empathy must be a priority.
Raising helpful and caring kids is needed today more than ever. A quick scan of our contemporary aggressive, violent and toxic culture, which seems increasingly prone to outrage, provides all the evidence we need to make the nurturing of empathy a priority. Of course, the result of such efforts would have huge societal benefits. A child who learns, from a young age, to appreciate and respect other living creatures – especially the smallest and most vulnerable – is infinitely more likely to translate such ways of thinking and acting into life with other human beings.
Can we teach such ways of thinking and acting by direct instruction? Probably not if we want the lesson to last. When it comes to fostering virtuous actions in children, the most effective lessons are more often “caught” than taught. The example, consistency, coherence, and commitment of adults and influencers are far more important “teachers”. Very little escapes the notice of a child.
Setting a good example is always the best teacher. When adults try to artificially improve a situation, it is easy to spoil a good thing. The exercise of free will in doing the “right thing” – not coercion or rewards – makes kids more generous, thoughtful and considerate in lasting ways.
Children who are rewarded for doing the “right thing” (or for doing what is expected of them) are statistically less likely to demonstrate enduring commitment to doing the “right thing” for the “right reasons”.
In chaos theory, there is a concept known as the butterfly effect, which states that a small change in one state can result in large and potentially significant changes in a later state. By teaching a child not to step on that caterpillar (…and, in so doing, to consider the feelings and experiences of others), we might just be influencing the course of our communities long into the future!