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GirlRainbowI heard someone say the other day that a solution for society's ills is teachers in our public schools helping children develop empathy and compassion. Leaving aside my awareness that this comment revealed a vast lack of knowledge about what most teachers' lives are like these days, I simply responded, "There's an easier way to foster that development, at a more optimal time, though -- from birth up to three years of age." The astonishment I saw on the faces of the three others in this conversation, in turn, astonished me. 

I thought everyone knew that, not just child development geeks like me.

 Think about it for a second: empathy and compassion rely on these inter-related pre-conditions:

  1. I have to recognize that other people exist as beings who are physically, intellectually, and emotionally separate from me, with interests and points of view different from mine, so that...
  2. I know that others can experience feelings that I'm not feeling. Then...
  3. I must either know how it feels to have that feeling, or be willing to sit with others, in open curiousity, to learn about feelings I haven't had, from those who are feeling them. Therefore,
  4. A wide range of emotions are familiar to me, and I have the vocabulary to talk about them.

So, when is the perfect time to gain all these complex understandings? Why not when we first start understanding emotions, in their most basic forms: mad, sad, glad, and afraid? Well, that would be when we enter toddlerhood.

Pre-mobile and pre-verbal infants do experience and express various forms of discomfort and pain, satisfaction and bliss, frustration, and even outraged grief, to be sure. Yet, their emotions are all still solely in the physical realm. What they feel is the changes to the systems in the body that actually are our emotions: muscle tension or weakness, changes in heart rate and respiration, disruptions to digestion or nerve energy, and changes in vision and hearing.

For example, the struggling resistance and wailing tears of an infant being dressed in the daily onesie are not "anger," in the adult sense of anger. Rather, they are a big physical NO! to the discomfort of having his body manipulated, against his self-interest of the moment, into a little fabric casing. We begin to teach infants that their physical experience is called anger when we call it that

The transition to what we adults think of and talk about as emotions begins after about six months. Muscle development in the torso and a second integration in the central nervous system bring the capacity to sit up, unassisted...and bring, along with that, a whole new perspective on the world. 

As babies move from this "I'm up!" moment, through the next six months of typical motor development, they become walkers, and at the same time, talkers. Able to truly interact "independently" with the world and the people in it, toddlers find out the language of emotions--the intellectual frameworks of emotion and how we talk about our feelings. See, it really does take two to Tango, but both have to be capable of leading! So, this is where we first learn the dance of interpersonal emotional dynamics...at nine to 15 months of age.

Recently, as a volunteer for Ready Readers, I shared a book about emotions with some pre-K children. I invited them to show me -- with posture, facial expression, and voice -- a wide range of emotions, such as frustration, boredom, jealousy, silliness, and disappointment. Mostly, their "acting out" expressions were pretty tepid, or they seemed confused about how that feeling was supposed to feel. Many of them acted out what looked more like "angry" for a wide range of other emotion words.

Then we got to the pages illustrating ANGRY. You know what? Every child knew how to do that one. Really well. For a while...until I called a halt.

What if, as toddlers, these various nuances of emotion were like alphabet blocks that children could play with? Just as adults name the ABC and 123s, colors and letters, shapes and signs, what if we named emotions with the same level of factuality? Imagine it: this is a triangle, this is green, this is mad, glad, sad, or afraid.

When children learn all kinds of emotions, exploring them, talking about them, acting them out, and noticing them in other people, we accomplish numbers 2, 3, and 4 from the list above. All of that interaction and learning over a year or two of maturation will lead to #1 on the list -- the emotional boundary that is a crucial ingredient for the Childhood Treasure of Independence. 

Before an emotional boundary emerges, though, a child must trust you to help her develop one. Learning about emotions and finding an emotional boundary is vulnerable work. To be vulnerable enough to lean into all the emotions of a human life, at this very young and tender age...well, that requires a healthy capacity for trust. It requires mining the Childhood Treasure of Trust before you're one year old.

That, my friends, is why elementary school teachers striving to foster empathy and compassion in their classrooms, even while they stay on target with all the curriculum expectations and prep for standardized testing...that is why they feel they are pushing a boulder up a hill.

Don't get me wrong! I always say that it's never too late to go back and mine these Treasures of Trust and Independence that are the literal foundation of empathy. I was well over 30 when I started that digging, myself. If children and youth must re-engage in this developmental process outside of their "most-ready" years, though, perhaps it would be better not to assign the main support role for this "do over" to someone who already has a full-time job as an educator. That's why schools need counselors, social workers, home visitors, and parent educators, as well as teachers.

Let us allow our pre-K to 12th grade teachers to build classroom cultures that assume compassion. Envison learning environments that operate from a foundation of empathy. Let teachers expand upon and foster the natural expression of compassion from a child's solid core of empathy, grown "in prime time," from about nine months to three years of age. Don't ask teachers to overcome the absence of it, as an added full-time job. Too many teachers today face a classroom full of children who've been through an early childhood baked from the recipe for a bully.

What is that recipe, you want to know? Okay, I'll tell, but you understand that I'm only telling you so that you can use a different  recipe from this one, yeah? Just sayin....


  • 1 vulnerable newborn infant, developing into a toddler and young preschooler (to be baked over two+ years, before serving, so plan ahead!)
  • 1 or more typical adults (season to taste), all doing the best they can to help rear a baby into a healthy and emotionally-functional adult, mostly without having become much of one, themselves
  • Note: this recipe produces the strongest results when the adults have not mined the Childhood Treasures of Trust and Independence and, fortunately, this ingredient is in abundant supply

Over two years in the oven of early development, these two ingredients interact in a super-heated environment. This baking environment must include at least four of these sources of heat:

  1. Regularly let the infant cry for 10 minutes or longer when hungry, in need of changing, or ready for play after a nap, to avoid "spoiling"
  2. Make no attempt to understand, and/or mostly ignore the infant's pre-verbal cues and signals that communicate her needs and interests
  3. Physically limit baby's access to whatever most interests him, whatever draws his attention, using restraints like car seats, bouncy swings, saucers, cribs and playpens, and slaps on the hands
  4. Keep adults' attention focused on each other and their digital devices, with little attention to baby
  5. Control infant and toddler behavior with anger, physical punishment like spanking, verbal threats of such punishment, and isolation
  6. Laugh at or otherwise dismiss/disrepect the emotions of the older infant and toddler

Note:  the more heat sources, the better. All six together ensure success.

Voila! The infant will enter preschool already baked into a little bully. Unlike bread, this recipe's outcome is a bully whose yeast rises and expands after baking. Be warned that your bully can expand in volume enough by 13 years of age to take up most of the space in your life.


I am grateful and proud to announce that I've been given a spot on the TEDx Wyandotte stage in Kansas City, KS on March 8, 2018. If you're in the metro area, I hope you will come hear my talk, "Never Too Late to Dream." Tickets are available on Event Brite at http://bit.ly/TEDxWYtix

© Copyright 2019

Dr. L. Carol Scott.

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