With the tense atmosphere that has surrounded our culture in the past few weeks, I’m thinking about compassion today. As parents, most of want to instill an understanding of compassion and kindness towards others in our children. It raises the question, however, of whether compassion is innate or learned. What research tells us is that we humans do have a tendency toward compassion but it has to be fostered and practiced.

New research is pointing more and more to the idea that some level of compassion is innate in humans. The “catch” is, however, that keeping that attitude of compassion requires practice. A lack of practice of compassion is the reason many children move towards selfishness as they near the grade-school years.

You may have seen videos of those classic psychological studies often done with infants to study innate compassion. Infants are shown a scenario in which a puppet tries to go up a tall hill. In one situation, another “kind” puppet helps the other character up the hill. In a different scenario, a “mean” puppet does not help the other character or may even try to discourage him from going up the hill. Later, infants are given a choice to view either the “kind” puppet or the “mean” puppet. Astonishingly, over 80% of infants choose the “kind” puppet. These types of studies have been done numerous times with infants as young as 3 months old. The results are always pretty much the same.

It seems that we humans gravitate towards compassion. Not only that, but those of us who have young children know that a child’s immediate reaction upon hearing another child cry or fall down is to try to help them. We see this all the time. You rarely, if ever, see a toddler attempt to harm another child if they are crying or hurt; they almost always try to help.

But wait a few years when that same child is in elementary school, and you may see him/her tease another child or intentionally hit another. What happens from infancy to elementary school? Do our children become “marred” by exposure to society? Well, we do not know exactly, but research does indicate that children to seem to shift from an attitude of innate compassion to more selfishness around age 5.

Perhaps what is more interesting, however, is that there seem to be strategies that help children avoid much of this shift to selfishness. There are programs that have been implemented in preschools to help children focus on kindness and see its benefits. When children are part of these programs, the shift toward selfishness seems to be thwarted, at least for awhile. There are not many long-term studies of these programs yet, but it does seem to encourage kindness for the beginning of elementary school.

Among children, helping them see the benefits of kindness and reinforce it is very intentional in these programs. For example, children get rewarded with a sticker on the “kindness chart” if they are helpful to classmates. As we grow, however, we begin to learn that kindness really brings its own positive reinforcement. We all know that acts of kindness make us feel good about ourselves. New research confirms that compassionate acts do, in fact, spark brain circuits that promote good feelings and pleasure.

Ultimately, children who feel better about themselves and others will go on to be more well-adjusted adults and citizens. Promoting compassion in the classroom not only makes for a better moral atmosphere but also helps children do well academically too. We know from studies of other programs that social-emotional learning is just as important as academic learning.

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