“Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”
Yesterday at 8:26AM, I stepped away from my job of shaking hands and greeting incoming students at the front door of the school to talk to a student in the hallway. When I returned to my post one minute later I found Isabel and Isabella, two fifth-graders, standing where I had been standing, shaking hands, smiling and saying good morning to the students as they came into school.
In a school where the children own their own learning, where they take responsibility for their social and physical environment, we should not be surprised when they want to step forward and try adult roles on for size. Humans want to be valuable, and these 10-year-olds found a way. Two others just recently asked me if they could help out at dismissal.
We never know when a student will be inspired to assume adult responsibility, but we can expect that children want to make a difference and that taking social responsibility is high on the list for most children. Not only can we expect it, we must expect it if we want to see it. Empathy is not something we teach, it is something we give children opportunities to express and practice. If given half a chance they will keep expressing it in ever more sophisticated ways for the rest of their lives. Children know, deep down, that their happiness and success depends on their ability to establish reciprocally beneficial relationships with others. Not finding a way to be valuable is a primary cause of persistent anti-social behavior.
Two days ago I sat in on a discussion in “Spruce,” one of three upper elementary classrooms.
“When you help others, you are helping yourself. You get a reward. People will respect your kindness.”
“Yes. Your reward could be something you learn along the way. As you help someone else, you can learn things. That’s a reward.”
“Well, I disagree a little. I don’t think you help others for a reward. I think you should help others for the sake of kindness, not rewards.”
“Helping others for a reward is not genuine.”
“I agree. If everyone thinks of others, you won’t need to care about yourself as much. I care about others, but I have to work at showing it. It makes me feel better.”
Discussions like this happen on a regular basis in all Golden Oak classrooms from first grade through eighth.
Are children always generous and thoughtful of others? Of course not. In fact children start making distinctions between those they should love and those they should fear, from birth. They begin to generate and test hypotheses about social relationships and build a causal map in their brains about how the social world works. They want to know (in fact, they know they need to know) how they can best manifest themselves in the world. As they do their social research they try out all sorts of behaviors, everything from giving to taking, from being kind to being mean, from helping to getting in the way. They learn when generosity, reciprocity or selfishness works by trial and error.
Certainly, children are self-centered. They are developing themselves. But just because they are self-centered doesn’t mean they have to be self-ish. “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile?” Yes, and children already sense the truth of this. Learning that giving is, in fact, more happy-making than receiving is quite natural. Spruce’s 4th, 5th and 6th graders are sophisticating their notions of how this is true and how to experience it.
In one class there is a child with serious, life threatening allergies. The children take responsibility for keeping him safe without any reminders from a teacher. In middle school every morning the students lead an organizational meeting in which they take responsibility for building their learning organization. It is a social work of art.
In most schools teachers talk to kids about “values,” and “character” and “empathy,” trying hard to teach kids be responsible. At Golden Oak the children develop their critical thinking, their communication and their cooperative skills as they wrestle with the fundamental challenges that all humans deal with.
Yes, wise people know that helping others is the best way to build a strong, happy self, but some people act as if this wisdom is already budding in children at birth ready to burst into full flower every day given the right conditions.