“BUT, I SAID I WAS SORRY!!” after yelling this at me, she dashed off. Moments before, she pushed a child over and I was helping that child speak with her. Was she sorry??? Of course not. Maybe she was sorry she got caught… but she definitely wasn’t sorry that she knocked over the other child. She was too busy and too egocentric (which is clearly understandable and developmentally appropriate at 2 1/2 years old). She did learn quickly though… that if you say you’re sorry then it is okay…. but really it is not okay. But, for her saying sorry was like a “get out of jail free card.”
I have heard a lot of different people talk about the importance of teaching young children empathy. Although I highly agree that empathy is important and is something we strive to assist in developing. I find it highly discouraging that the idea is out there that empathy can be taught. In my experience and observation, empathy is a characteristic that is developed over time and comes about after having experienced and witnessed empathy from others.
Simply defined, empathy is the ability to understand and feel the emotions/perspective of another. What we know from research and child development is that young children are egocentric. Simply defined this means thinking of oneself without regard of others. Piaget noted that children generally are not able to see or understand the perspective of another until between the ages of 7-12. (Although there are many adults who sometimes seem to still have problems with this). So, is it really developmentally appropriate to expect young children to say that they are sorry or to expect them to understand the perspective of another?
So….. what do we do when a child is knocked over then?
First, I wait and observe. Sometimes I do nothing, because I trust that children are capable, and that they can solve their own problems. If it is clear that they need my help, I move in closer. I talk with the child who was pushed. If they are hurt or have hurt feelings, I may say “I’m sorry you are hurt. How can I help?” Often my presence is enough. Sometimes it is a hug, and most often the child wants me to help them talk to the other child. Typically the conversation goes like this…
Child who was pushed: “I don’t like it when you push me. That hurt!”
Sometimes that is all. Sometimes if the other child continues to push, I need to remind them… “I heard her say she doesn’t want to be pushed. Maybe you can ask and see if someone else wants to be pushed.” Most of time, around here it is pretty easy to find a pushing partner, but if no one else wants to be pushed and this child has a clear need/desire to push, it is my job to help provide things that can be pushed.
Dan Hodgins and I talk more about this in the 6th episode of the Shakin’ Bones podcast. (If you click on more episodes and choose episode #6 you can listen to our discussion).