“So in the child, besides the vital impulse to create himself, and to become perfect, there must yet be another purpose, a duty to fulfill in harmony, something he has to do in the service of a united whole.” — Maria Montessori, "The Absorbent Mind"
Maria Montessori believed that it is the duty of every person to work toward and be part of something great. This not only serves our individual interests, but those of all humanity. Empathy, or the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes, to share in their feelings and to see and appreciate what another person is feeling or experiencing, is an important part of being a friend and getting along with others. This means that working to instill empathy in our children is a vital task.
At Creative Minds Montessori, we teach empathy in a variety of ways. Our teachers model empathy to the students, as well as to other teachers and parents. Children observe empathy in this way and absorb it into their own behaviors. When empathy is repeatedly demonstrated by our teachers in the classroom, it helps to set the culture of the learning environment and it sets an expectation for the way one treats others.
Our classrooms also feature lessons in manners, grace and courtesy that help to instill empathy in children. These lessons help demonstrate positive social skills, help our young students adjust to life in a group setting, and provide them the knowledge of what behavior is socially acceptable. Specific lessons may include: greeting someone and introducing yourself, taking turns, apologizing, interrupting, speaking politely, saying please and thank you, and being kind.
How can you implement Montessori methods for empathy in your home?
• One thing you can do is to recognize your child’s efforts to be empathetic toward others. A simple, “I saw you helping your friend when she was hurt,” will do. You don’t want to overdo it. Praise for every little act of courtesy can actually have the opposite effect by refocusing the attention back to “all about me-ness.”
• If you rarely put your phone down to say hello to other parents at school, or you’re rude to the busy store clerk who messed up your order, your child will notice. Why not use these moments as opportunities to talk about how others might feel in certain situations? Honestly, you may find it helps improve your viewpoint as well!
• No one’s perfect. We all suffer moments of EDD: empathy-deficit disorder. Cut yourself some slack and let your child see you work through negative feelings by encouraging conversations about anger, frustration or jealousy. And don’t be afraid to apologize for your slip-ups in front of your children.
• Maria Montessori felt that a strong focus on being happy doesn’t actually increase your child’s happiness. She believed the best path to happiness is through kindness toward others. Try prioritizing empathy and compassion for other people; this will help your child understand that they are not the only person deserving attention.
• Like any other skill, empathy takes practice. Why not begin by simply listening to each other. Talk about each other’s feelings. Try to understand what an experience is like from someone else’s point of view. Be sure to give your child the language to talk about their feelings — not just happy and sad, but jealous, afraid, annoyed or surprised. Remember: When you practice kindness and empathy, it will help your child to do the same.
At Creative Minds Montessori School, empathy it is built into our very fabric. We do not teach empathy so much as we model empathy. It is inherent in all our classrooms as a foundational piece of a Montessori education. Teaching our children empathy is a worthwhile investment, not only for their own futures, but for the world they will inhabit.