NUMBER 161 • 27 NOVEMBER 2002 • HELPING
INDEX OF QUOTES
I regret the mistakes that I did make.
And also my feelings of no give and all take.
And for once in my life I’m ready to change.
But the solution to the problem is well out of range.
It is interesting to watch groups of toddlers and preschoolers interact with each other. There is invariably a child in distress who is either crying or having a tantrum. Just as regularly, there are other toddlers who approach their distressed peer cautiously, perhaps "blanky" in hand. They no doubt sense that they need to be careful because this distressed toddler may bite, hit, push, etc. There are, after all, needs for "power" that all children have. This possibility does not, however, halt their forward march. They continue their cautious approach forward, and, as they arrive, a helping hand is often extended in the form of sharing a toy, touching the shoulder of the toddler, patting him, stroking his hair, even giving a hug. Quite often, others will come looking for the teacher/caregiver to voice the need for help. I have seen this type of interaction occur repeatedly among and between cross-cultural groups, and I have concluded that the need to reach out and give to others is as basic as the need to survive. In fact, when survival is at issue (during earthquakes, ice storms, tornadoes, floods), stories of people helping each other are commonplace.
Even newborns are thought to show behaviors associated with empathy toward others. In Simner (1971), studies are cited which showed that infants were more likely to cry when they heard another infant’s crying than they were when they heard other noises of equal intensity. Zahn-Wexler and Radke-Yarrow (1982) found in a study of preschoolers that nearly 90% shared with, helped, or comforted another child at least once during a forty-minute observation of free play. Alfie Kohn (1990) has eloquently written about children’s natural feelings of altruism and empathy. Luks (1988) described a "helper’s high" which was linked to relief from stress-related disorders such as headaches, voice loss, and even diseases such as lupus and multiple sclerosis.
Some children lose touch with their natural need to help when they shut down as a result of the physical or emotional pain inflicted upon them. Reawakening this need can be healing and spiritually uplifting and can improve behavior. Teachers have frequently reported positive changes in students who are put in situations in which they are empowered to help others. The increase of self-help groups wherein people who share common problems come together to help each other is further testament to the power of helping.
In my book Smiling at Yourself (1990), a number of suggestions are offered for parents and teachers to engage the natural need in children to help. I describe a program in which juvenile delinquent youth become clowns and then go out to nursing homes, hospitals, and preschools to brighten the day of others. The "hardened" boys in this program transform into caring, thoughtful "menschen". Within a regular school setting, tutoring and big-brother/sister programs, in which older kids help younger kids, can be beneficial to all.
As Brendtro et al. share in Reclaiming Youth At Risk (1990):
Without opportunities to give to others, young people do not develop as caring persons. Some may be involved in pseudo-altruistic helping or they may be locked in servitude to someone who uses them. Others plunge into lifestyles of hedonism and narcissism. The antidote for this malaise is to experience the joys that accrue from helping others.
Mendler, A.N. (1992) What do I do when …? How to achieve discipline with dignity in the classroom. Bloomington, Indiana: National Education Service