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Lower Elementary Students Visit with Residents of Arbor Terrace, a senior living community.

This time of year inspires many of us to reflect on how fortunate we are, on all of the things for which we are grateful. As parents, we strive to teach our children a model of generosity and empathy. However, this can be a difficult concept to teach young children, as it is an abstract idea. Children learn best by concrete examples and they are developmentally egocentric during the first years of life.

Dr. Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Learning at the University of Washington states that based on research, the capacity to imitate is “pre-wired” into our DNA. When infants imitate, it is the beginning of “being like the other person”. “Later that can flower into empathy, which is the ability to become like the other person in emotion and perspective.”

Our job as parents and guides is to help the capacity for imitation to grow into real emotional empathy and compassion. Nurturing empathy can begin with simple games of imitation and progress into asking open-ended questions and reflecting on feelings, making comments such as “You must have felt very sad when that happened.”

Children’s books can be a helpful resource when teaching children the importance of giving. They can facilitate conversations, ideas and plans. Some of the classic books that showcase different ways of giving are: The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein; It’s Mine! By Leo Lionni; The Gift of Nothing, by Patrick McDonnell; The Man in the Clouds, by Koos Meinderts; The Invisible Boy, by Trudy Ludwig
Children in a Montessori classroom begin to learn about giving at a very young age, when they learn responsibility for the materials in the class, to care for their environment, for their belongings, as well as for their words and actions.

By practicing lessons in Grace and Courtesy, children learn to interact politely with others. Children learn to greet others with care, to wait their turn to speak or to work with certain materials, they learn to resolve conflicts peacefully.

As guides and parents we are the example, the model that children will absorb and imitate. The concept of education on all levels as a continuum from birth to adulthood was unique to Dr. Montessori. She knew that everything the child experienced and learned served as the foundation for all the learning that was to follow.

During this time of year when our society might encourage us to buy the latest gadgets for our children, or to “give them what we couldn’t have”, please consider more simple gifts instead. Share family traditions, rituals, even the daily “mundane” activities such as preparing meals and clearing the table with your child.

The concepts of giving and empathy take time to develop. The lessons in Grace and Courtesy at the Primary level lay the foundation for further understanding. Once children recognize that their actions affect others in the classroom and home environments, they can begin to extend kindness to others in the larger community.

Children at the Elementary Level learn about the common needs of humans, the different types of needs around their community, and how everyone can help. Even though volunteering might seem more appropriate for the elementary, adolescent-aged child, there are opportunities to “plant the seed” of giving at every stage of development by modeling giving of our time and effort.

Pebble Tossers is a free, local resource organization that offers volunteer opportunities for children and families of every age and ability level, from “kitten cuddler”, which helps to socialize cats as future adoptees, to delivering sandwiches to homeless citizens. Setting the model of giving and empathy not only during the holidays, but throughout the year is the the most powerful gift we can give our children.

“The child who has felt a strong love for his surroundings and for all living creatures, who has discovered joy and enthusiasm in work, gives us reason to hope that humanity can develop in a new direction.”

-Maria Montessori