Updated: Jun 15, 2022
After 43 years working with very young children and their families, I can say for sure that empathy starts early and so does bullying and racism. It's never too early to develop attitudes. In fact, they're formed much earlier than anybody thought. By age 3 a child's brain has already reached 80% of its adult volume. Research shows the capacity for empathy is present at birth.
Research also shows us that since the '80s, empathy levels have gone down in the US by as much as 50% and in similar studies, happiness levels have also gone down 50%!
I know that children aren't born racists or bullies but by the time they're 5 many have those attitudes deeply ingrained. Take Allie and Shemika, 4-year-olds at a center where I worked in the early 1980s.
They were best friends, always together and a striking pair, Allie with white skin, strawberry blond hair a few freckles, and Shemika, several months older and a bit taller with chocolate brown skin and lots of neatly done braids and pigtails.
The year before, Allie's 5-year-old brother told me matter-of-factly that "Black people were scary because they turn over people's cars." So I wasn't exactly shocked when one day Allie proclaimed that Black people were "bad" while sitting right next to her friend Shemika waiting to use the bathroom.
"That's not true. Shemika's Black!", I said. Allie looked at me, frowned the biggest frown of disgust a 4-year-old could muster up, and then she looked at Shemika and back at me before loudly blurting out, "Shemika's not BLACK!!! (The 5-year-olds a couple of seats away giggled)
I looked at Shemika and she was smiling like the Mona Lisa. She knew she was Black. And she knew she was good. Allie refused to entertain the thought that Shemika was Black, even after it was confirmed by Shemika herself, and they continued to be best friends. An attitude of intolerance and hate had been instilled in Allie by the age of 4. Shemika, on the other hand, had an attitude of pride. Anyway, these days we know that there are experiences we, as parents and providers can provide for our children that will instill an attitude of acceptance, inclusion, and trust even from birth. Louise Derman-Sparks who taught at Pacific Oaks College and Children's School in Pasadena, CA worked with the A.B.C. (anti-bias curriculum) task force to create experiences that develop an inclusive attitude in very young children.
In 1989 her book, Anti-Bias Curriculum, Tools for Empowering Young Children. included ideas for very young children to participate in anti-bias activities. The ideas I'm going to share with you are based on her excellent work.
Idea #1 Acceptance.
Sparks suggests bathing baby dolls with varying and realistic skin tones while talking lovingly about all shades of skin. She also suggests having children be active participants in change. One example she gives is that the children noticed that there wasn't a parking space that was designated for use by people with disabilities so they got some blue paint and painted one in themselves with permission from the school.
Idea #2 Representation.
We need to include books and materials that depict interesting and realistic people in the United States and other countries, the way they look today. And we need to make sure that everyone, no matter what race, skin color, or gender they identify with is included, especially if the children are in a racially and/or sexually homogenous situation.
Mix it up. Include real live people of color, differing gender identities, ages, sizes, and abilities in your lives. Don't sit around in a cloistered cocoon of folks that look and act just like you. Reach out to include interesting people even when it's a little bit uncomfortable to make that effort. Sometimes it helps to take a risk and ask a nosy question if you want to get closer to someone.
One of the kids in my family childcare home hadn't had a lot of experience with people who were different from her so she took one look at the African-American supervising teacher who came to observe my student teacher and said, "Why are you Black?"
Luckily, the supervising teacher had heard that question before and wasn't offended by it. She smiled and calmly said, "Well, my mommy was Black and my Daddy was Black, so I'm Black!" To that, the child said, "Oh, and why are you wearing a coat?"
Idea #3 Teach Fairness and Empathy
What if I were to say to you that those children with brown eyes get to eat first today and every day from now on? How would you feel? What if your eyes were blue, green, hazel, or violet? What if you were born with two different colored eyes?
Questions like this can get young children talking about what's fair and what isn't. They should think about these things often in their development.
I often read a book about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to my group to teach about fairness. That only goes so far but they do enjoy it a lot.
I also keep a photo of Dr. King and his family sharing cookies on my fridge. They notice the photo because it shows family life. I tell them this story, every time they ask, and they ask quite often:
See the little girl in the picture? She's MLK's daughter. One day she went to an amusement park with some friends and the man at the gate told her she couldn't come in just because her skin was brown.
Can you believe that? How do you think she felt? Is that fair? That's one reason MLK felt it's so important to make sure that all people are treated fairly, no matter what color their skin is."
In Denmark, they actively teach empathy to 3-year-old children by showing them photos of people with varying expressions and talking about how they feel. This and the anti-bullying program all children receive in grade school are mandatory. Here's a game you can play with your kids that gets them used to behaving with empathy.
Make handheld "mirrors" with each class or family member's photo glued to them. Ask children to think about how it might feel to be the other person as they hold the photo up to their face and answer questions pretending to be the other person. This type of role-playing is an excellent way to help children see things from another person's perspective.
If the children you are working with are too young to understand the mirror game, simply talk with them and give them words for feelings when reading together or looking at pictures of people. You can also learn to decorate rocks with expressive faces and talk about them as you play!
Of course, this is just a starting point and there's a lot more to be said and discussed.
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Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, parent, author, teacher, SELF-care facilitator, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human development from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI.