Developing strong, resilient children (and saving the earth)

13 Nov

The world is a wonderful and interesting, but demanding place. For someone with insatiable curiosity the world is truly a place for learning about yourself, the ecology, and other people. In a recent publication of the New Scientist magazine there is a spellbinding article on the effect of weather patterns on the earth and all its inhabitants. This article divides the “facts” about weather changes in two categories; those that we know, based on research and observation and those that we do not know. The latter mostly has to do about the effect of the first category on life on earth as we know it. The overall impression of this article is that changes will come and we will have to adjust to these changes.

Why is this article mentioned in the same breath as interest and curiosity? I can add some other social skills to these two, like empathy, respect for all living things, to be able to consider the long-term effect of a choice you make, and more. All of these things are important, not only to save the world, but absolutely essential for school readiness, functioning as an employee and employer in the future and being a caring, loving partner, parent and person. Need I say more?

There are two questions we need to ask: why is it important to develop these skills and how do we develop these skills.

Let us tackle the more difficult question first. To be able to develop empathy, it is important that we develop the ability to be aware of other people and their needs. This is a very interesting field of research. The official name for this process is “Theory of Mind” or ToM. Alison Gopnik describes in her book Philosophical Baby very young toddlers already showing signs of being aware that other people have different needs than their own. She describes the amusing experiment of presenting a toddler with a bowl of crackers and a bowl of broccoli. Of course the child reached for the crackers. The researcher then took the broccoli and with great relish and lip smacking ate the green stuff. The toddler obviously thought this person is out of her mind, but very kindly reached for the broccoli and presented it to the researcher.

Our Guinea-pig at school died from a virus infection. In spite of careful nurturing we could not save him. All the children were interested in this whole process and it provided a wonderful opportunity to let them experience care, grief and thinking about death. One 2½ year old little girl was inconsolable. She kept on asking why did we not put a blanket over him in the night? Coming to terms with the loss of the school pet showed me her well-developed empathy. Quite a remarkable reaction for a child this young. How does this answer our question? Children learn the skills of empathy and respect for all living things from our daily example. The implication of this is that we need to be a consistent role model for our children from a very young age if we want them to develop these skills. We need to plan for opportunities to develop these skills. This also means that the choice of a care centre and preschool is important. When we do market research in order to place our children in care, or even when we employ an au pair, the norms and values of the caregiver should be paramount in our choice. There is no sense in placing your child with an au pair or a preschool where winning, being better than other people and conditional love and attention is the way of helping children to develop. Placing your child in an institution like this, will contribute to the very real danger of rearing egocentric, selfish children; children that are able to read and do math, but are unable to relate to others in a caring way.

Of course, once again, the magic way to learn about the ToM of other children and other people is to play imaginative games in groups. Apart from social skills like empathy, children also learn to develop and share rules, to find creative solutions to problems and accommodate other people’s needs. One of the things we forget when exposing our children to early formal reading and math is that these skills are based on the foundation of abstract thinking. Abstract thinking develops when children play imaginative or fantasy games. Symbolic thought is the impetus for the development of abstract thinking as it is for “reading” other people and being aware of their feelings and needs. All of the other skills, like thinking before you do something (impulse control), or taking responsibility for you choices and your mistakes will be developed in the imaginative play arena.

Does this mean that children can play what they want? The answer must be a conditional yes. A trained professional teacher with an interest in brain development and effective learning will of course plan play opportunities. However, the full benefit is when children take the given opportunity and develop it into something that answer to their needs. (Do a Google search on Facilitated Imaginative Play and see what a host of other people has to say on this topic!)

Let us return to the first question: why is it important for the world view of the future adult to have these skills? Why is it important to have interested, curious people? Well, in the first place that is a natural state of mind of humans if it is allowed to develop. It is one of the ways we survive — now, in future and in the past. If our ancestors in the wild were not wide awake, interested and curious, we would probably still be carrying our little bundles on our backs, living in caves. Inventions happen because humans are curious, interested people, able to see problems and solve problems in creative, innovative ways. However, if we do not provide children (of all ages) with opportunities to explore, discover and develop creative thinking, we will find it very hard to survive.

I believe in the future of the earth because I believe in the immense potential in each child and in every human being, to be lively, interested, curious, caring and innovative. If we awaken this potential, what can stop us?

Photo: H.Koppdelaney at Flickr,




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