Harnessing the disarming power of infants to help teach children how to be kind

By Dave Andrusko

Editor’s note. My family and I will be on our vacation through August 27. I will occasionally add new items but for the most part we will repost “the best of the best” — the stories our readers have told us they especially liked.

It’s snowing in the Washington, DC, area and many to almost all of the school districts in the region are closed. (First snow of the year, and all that in places where removing snow largely remains a mystery.)

We’ve lived in this area for 37 years and it’s fair to say that the DC school system has tried just about everything to address the human costs of poverty and violence at the same time it also tries to raise test scores which in parts of the city are alarmingly behind national averages. Having taught for a while myself and with my oldest daughter a special needs teacher, I have a sense of how high the mountains are that many of these kids must climb.

I mention this as a preface to a story that continues to influence in ways I never imagined when I first read it. Under the headline, “D.C. classrooms welcome babies in effort to teach empathy,” Washington Post reporter Emma Brown begins her delightful story with these three paragraphs:

The newest teachers at the District’s Maury Elementary School haven’t been to college. They can’t tie their own shoes. They don’t speak much English. And they aren’t potty-trained.

They are babies. Mostly bald, and completely mesmerizing.

Maury is one of five D.C. elementary schools attempting to harness the disarming power of infants to help students recognize and deal with emotions in themselves and their classmates. The babies, in other words, are meant to help teach children how to be kind.”

I used to teach a gazillion years ago and ever since I’ve tried to keep track of the wave after wave of subsequent educational “reform” movements. This one, unlike so many others, is not based on counter-intuitive ideas but derives from foundational truths about who we are as human beings.

The immediate impetus may be concerns about bullying and low test scores but the core motivation is a “growing conviction that teaching certain character traits — such as persistence, self-control and self-confidence — is just as crucial for students’ futures as teaching academics.” (P.S. the sun also rises in the East.)

How do babies fit into this program which is based on “Roots of Empathy” which is now common across Canada? According to Ms. Brown

“Roots is built on a simple notion: When babies such as June bring their huge eyes, irrepressible smiles and sometimes unappeasable tears into the classroom, students can’t help but feel for them. The idea is that recognizing and caring about a baby’s emotions can open a gateway for children to learn bigger lessons about taking care of one another, considering others’ feelings, having patience.”

Put another way, they are trying to teach the kids “emotional literacy, the words to understand what you feel based on what you’ve witnessed with the babies,” according to Mary Gordon, who founded the Roots program in 1996.

Understandably, there are skeptics, who see it all as touchy-feely, hard-to-quantify stuff, diverting resources that could be better used elsewhere (proponents obviously disagree). So, how does it work? Brown writes

Roots pairs each classroom with a baby, who visits nine times throughout the year with his or her mom or dad, a volunteer recruited from the community. Each child has a chance to look the baby in the eye, squeeze its toe and say hello before the class settles into a circle around a green blanket.

A volunteer instructor asks questions related to one of nine themes, from the reasons babies cry to the emotions they feel. The classes — which range from 30 to 50 minutes, depending on the baby’s mood — are mostly a chance for students to watch the baby as it responds to songs and games and to ask questions and share observations about whatever comes to mind.

Okay, I do not have to drive home some obvious implications for you and I, beyond the powerfully helpful role having little ones in the classroom can have.

First, we can hope that the lessons these children are learning will stay with them. Having a sense of who these little critters are—why they cry, for example—offers the prospect of a greater empathy when someone else’s child (especially the child of an unmarried teenager) cannot be consoled. And, of course, likewise for one’s own children.

Second, character-education/social-emotional learning is not just about working hard and being nice. It is grounded in the linkage between cause (diligence and self-discipline) and effect (success), nurtured by the understanding that it is not all about me. As one parents said of her daughter, “She’s not just thinking of herself and what she wants, she is thinking about others.”

For us, those “others” are unborn children, little ones born with disabilities, and the frail elderly. Too often we have witnessed what has been described as an “empathy deficit.”

Of course talking about this “deficit” is one thing–the first time I heard the idiom it came from the most pro-abortion President in our history, Barack Obama—and putting it into action is quite another. This, like anything else, is not a be-all, end-all.

But it is a place to start. What we all extrapolated this to the unborn child with a slight and revealing twist?

“How come my baby sister can walk, but Baby Joshua can’t walk?” asked a puzzled second-grader at Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys, a tuition-free private school in Southeast Washington.

“We all develop in different ways,” said the instructor, Anthony Davis.

How come the unborn baby “doesn’t look like a baby” in the first few weeks or months? This is how we are supposed to look at one week or one month or two months, and so on.

We take the lives of unborn child for many reasons. Not the least of those reasons is panic which takes on (so to speak) a life of its own. That overwhelming sense of being out-of-control (seemingly) ends when she takes control of the fate of her little one.

But an understanding of—and identification with—this unplanned visitor will operate as a gateway, making it so we “can’t help but feel for them.”