Is gratefulness something we can teach to toddlers? Can young kids feel empathy? How do we help our children to follow their intuition and be in control of their choices?
I am pondering these topics now as my son grows and begins to show signs of understanding complex relationships and ideas. I have read at least a dozen times this conventional belief that children under age nine are not capable of complex thoughts, and that - as toddlers - they are expected to only think about their own needs and desires. While it is often true that young children often focus on what they want above all else... I actually think contrary to the belief that children are ego-centric at a young age, I think that is simplistic thinking. I find that we can nurture a child's perception of others by validating their feelings, and also by encouraging them to think about how other people feel. I watch my child look at another child who is crying, with a real look of concern. I often tell him 'it's OK honey, that baby is just hungry.' Or that child may be a little tired. 'Don't worry, they are OK.' I have perceived this empathy coming from him many times, and I also see it in other children. When a child falls down at the park, the others stop and look, or try to help. They are aware of other beings and their happiness or unhappiness. I believe this tenderness and empathy can be cultivated.
Sometimes this awareness comes out in other ways too. I watch my child interact easily with some people he meets, he will say hello, point to things, engage with them. Other times, he backs away. I try not to push him in this way. I try not to force politeness just because it seems appropriate. I try to trust him when he chooses to either connect with someone or not. How do I know why sometimes he guards himself from people? Maybe that person is really stressed out, or unhappy, or whatever - maybe he senses something that I don't - I want him to follow those instincts, not to be bullied into being sociable if he's uncomfortable.
Today in gymnastics (which he usually loves, and goes into full force) my son was reserved. He wanted to hold my hand and pull me around to the various stations and trampolines set up for the kids. I went with him, but part of me wished he was enjoying himself more, exploring and engaging with the other kids like he typically does. I spent the money for the class...we are here for an hour doing what we would have done at home... Who knows why he wasn't into it today, was he just tired? was there a kid or parent that made him uneasy? was it too crowded? I asked him to join the group circle at the end of class, and he said, "No? No?" (as in, I don't want to, do I have to?) I said, "OK, honey, it's OK, you don't have to if you don't want to." He repeated, 'no, no have to.' He repeated it a few more times with conviction when I asked him again if he wanted to go over with the other kids.
He made his own choice, and I tried to accept it, even if it wasn't what I preferred. Even if we looked odd watching the other kids play while he observed from across the room. We were there for him to explore, for his playtime, so I try to let him guide it when I can. It's difficult though to keep a balance between conventions of friendliness and manners and order, but also allow for freedom, intuition, and feelings. I try to remind myself to let him guide the experience, and not to push or force him into 'enjoying' it.
I find this toddler period of parenting to be extremely rewarding, because of all the feedback they can give you, all the new experiences and new learning, and most of all, their new abilities to really express their feelings, and my new responsibilities of modeling behaviors that keep me always pondering the right path. I am thinking all the time now about the choices I make, and how my child perceives the world because of me. How can I teach him to be grateful for the things that he has? By being grateful myself. And by talking to him about it everyday. I try to consciously think of those characteristics that I would like to teach him, and how to preserve the capable, aware, amazing child that he is. I feel children are born to us as gifts, and as teachers, and they choose us, their parents and families. It's a giant responsibility, one that I find both incredibly humbling and highly enlightening.