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What Parents Should Know About Peace and Empathy in Young Children

The work of Maria Montessori is one of the leading sources in the world for peace education. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, in fact, three years in a row, from 1949 to 1951.

Her observations about society included that “Humans are brought up to regard themselves as isolated individuals who must satisfy their immediate needs by competing with other individuals.” Herein lies the source of so many of our human conflicts.

How can we teach our children empathy, to consider the perspective of others, and to understand that we can live in better harmony with our family and in our society if we consider everyone’s needs instead of focusing only on our own?

4 Ways To Support A Toddler’s Developing Sense of Empathy

Justice is often misunderstood at this stage.

Our toddlers sometimes protest, “That’s not fair!” when it’s bedtime or when they cannot have a second treat. This shows us that they have an undeveloped sense of fairness that we can help them with. We can give them the right words to express their emotions, “It’s frustrating when we have to wait in a line, but it’s fair because that person arrived before we did.”

It won’t be until they are at least 6 years old that their own moral compass will start to develop so until this age, when they start to ask questions on the topic, it will be our responsibility to model fairness and empathy.

Build up your toddler’s confidence

Children who feel that their needs will be met, including their sense of pride, can more easily face the world around them with a spirit of generosity. For this reason, we avoid shaming them when they make mistakes or act out. Montessori wrote that a child who develops an “irrational terror of public opinion” is less able to develop a strong character and navigate complex moral or ethical situations. More immediately, they may hide from or be unable to tolerate corrections or constructive criticism. They may stop trying because of a fear of failure or rejection.

Helpful phrases to use when correcting a little one’s behavior are “Would you like to try that again together?” or “Can I show you a different way?”

Model respect

Let your child see you take care of your possessions, your friends, and your family. When you feel depleted, take care of yourself and share your feelings. “I’m so hungry, I’m afraid it’s going to make me grumpy.” Conflict resolution is an important parenting tool. We all need to practice being able to disagree with others respectfully. Our children absorb our style of speech and our body language and soon imitate it.

Allowing each person to speak and be heard completely before talking about solutions is an important first step. No one can move forward until they feel this respect or their emotions and thoughts.

Practice compassion

When we seek to understand our child’s perspective and articulate that to them, we are modeling compassion and inviting them to do the same for others. “You are frustrated because you wanted to go to the store with Daddy and it’s safer for us to stay at home.” It is okay for him to feel frustrated just as it is okay for you to set limits. Leading with empathy, letting him know his emotions are heard and valid before setting the limits will keep his mind and heart open to you and the world.

The same holds true for acknowledging the pain and struggles of others. This is when we have an opportunity to introduce our child to the language of empathy.

“That person is getting angry because she feels ignored. I get angry when I am ignored as well.”

Respect and empathy for others are essential for building lasting peace. These behaviors and qualities start in childhood. Montessori believed that children were “the bright new hope for mankind” (Montessori, 1967, p. 17). Ultimately, it will be by encouraging respect, empathy, and peace from an early age that there may someday be a peaceful world.

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