One of the things that young children need to learn as they grow up is the concept of ‘Theory of Mind’. This is understanding that other people or children will have different opinions, thoughts, experiences, beliefs, imagination and perceptions than our own. Robert Seyfarth explains a classic ‘Theory of Mind’ experiment in this Youtube video here.
By about 4 years old, children will start to realise that not everyone thinks the same way they do, or that they have the same ideas or motivations. They will be able to understand that they may be hungry, but their friend isn’t. Or that their friends all have different favourite colours.
Theory of Mind is an important concept because it affects behaviour and decision making. For example, without Theory of Mind, I’m unable to understand why my friend is upset when I snatch a toy from them. So if a practitioner’s response to this incident is: “You must say sorry” this is totally meaningless. Sorry for what? From the child’s perspective: I’m happy because I have a toy. I don’t know why my friend is crying.
So you can see how trying to explain kindness to a very young child with no Theory of Mind has some problems.
However, you can help children’s understanding by implementing a few guidelines with them, sometimes called Golden Rules or similar. By encouraging children to consider other’s feelings they will start to develop a Theory of Mind. Things like ‘We have Kind Hands, Kind Feet’ can be a good start to encourage children to think about their actions, but it doesn’t help them to understand the thought process of ‘being kind’.
This is one of the reasons that I really like the Yoginis ‘Kind Hearts, Kind Words, Kind Thoughts’ mantra. By encouraging children to think about their actions first, you are encouraging them to consider the other person’s feelings, consequences of actions and their own motivation.
The ‘Kind Words’ is especially interesting, as it is unusual to find rules that include this, but we know that the language we use and the way we speak to people can be harmful too. However, children still have to learn this and, depending on their role models, this may be a difficult thing to learn.
Talking about role models, it is fairly well understood that children will imitate what they see, rather than what they are told. Bandura’s research into ‘learnt behaviours’ using a ‘Bobo Doll’ can be seen here.
So, explaining kindness to children can be achieved in two ways:
- Clear guidelines for children to help them understand Theory of Mind i.e. that others have feelings. Followed byways of implementing this i.e. playing together in ways that meet typical social norms.
- Being good role models, by making sure that we use kind words ourselves and that our actions are always thoughtful.
You can watch Sue Hartley and Katie Brennan of Yoginis explain their more of these concepts along with their ethos, activities and Yoga sessions in their interview on Early Years TV here.
You can watch this Early Years TV Episode as a EYTV Premium Member at any time.