I’ve been telling everyone I meet about a blog post from the New York Times called Fighting Bullying with Babies. It’s about a program, Roots, that brings babies to elementary school classrooms once a month. After Manitoba completed the program into 300 schools, violence decreased by 50%. Not only that, all of the children, whether or not they were every violent, measured higher for empathy. So did the teachers. And the benefits of the year-long program stuck around for at least three years.
My first reaction was that the success of the Roots program is an argument for having large families. But of course, there are many ways for our kids to interact with babies without having a new one. And having younger sibling is no guarantee that our children will be more compassionate and empathetic.
(A comment on the article mentioned that he hoped the children wouldn’t like babies so much that they wanted their own as teens. With that logic, I guess young people better not see any babies at all, ever. They might like them too much.)
The babies were all two to four months old at the beginning of the school year. Every month, the children sat around the baby and mother (or father), while the instructor talked to them about caring for babies.
To parent well, you must try to imagine what your baby is experiencing. So the kids do a lot of “perspective taking.” When the baby is too small to raise its own head, for example, the instructor asks the children to lay their heads on the blanket and look around from there. Perspective taking is the cognitive dimension of empathy – and like any skill it takes practice to master. . . .
Children learn strategies for comforting a crying baby. They learn that one must never shake a baby. They discover that everyone comes into the world with a different temperament, including themselves and their classmates. They see how hard it can be to be a parent, which helps them empathize with their own mothers and fathers. And they marvel at how capacity develops. Each month, the baby does something that it couldn’t do during its last visit: roll over, crawl, sit up, maybe even begin walking. Witnessing the baby’s triumphs – even something as small as picking up a rattle for the first time — the children will often cheer.
The program is now being implemented in Washington as well. The take-away lesson for me is that life is full of opportunities to teach our children empathy and compassion, with or without a baby at home. It’s only a matter of taking advantage of those moments.
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