A Case Study in Compassion

Tell me why you are crying, my son … I know you’re frightened, like everyone.  Is it the thunder in the distance you fear?  Will it help if I stay very near?  I am here.

The text came in as I was preparing to leave work.  The director of our early childhood center had fallen on the playground and was en route to the emergency room.

While running interference on the bike path, she had moved toward a child who was pedaling against the flow of traffic.  His abrupt stop sent her leap-frogging over him and landing on her elbow and side.  No bones were broken, but she was banged up, and in considerable pain.

Shortly after the first teacher reached her side, 4-year old Mateo walked over, sat down beside the director and said, “Yvonne, I’m going to stay here and watch over you.”

He sat with her until the paramedics arrived.  Mateo’s mother, a teacher at the center, explained that the paramedics were like doctors who would get Yvonne to the hospital.  “They don’t look like doctors,” he mused.  Upon Yvonne’s return to school two days later, her presented her with a container of his grandmother’s Feel Better Soup.

What’s behind an act of compassion from a child so young?

Adults respond in many ways to others’ pain.  Some folks leap into action, while others take secondary roles, or perhaps do nothing.  Children show similarly disparate responses.  However, they are just beginning to figure out how to interact with people outside their family.  The journey of social competence is an interesting combination of temperament and experience.

Helping, sharing, cooperating, and seeing from other points of view are just a few of the components in this important set of skills.  Mateo is already demonstrating empathy, though, in his act of protection of Yvonne.  This hallmark of social competence is critical to a child’s self-confidence, the ability to form relationships, and success in school.

What does Mateo have going for him?  Perhaps his constitution makes him an easygoing child, able to connect readily with others.  And while I don’t know him personally, I do know his mother, a former student of mine.  He has two loving parents, a younger brother, and a grandmother who is active in his life and has volunteered at the center.  Even these limited details indicate a caring and supportive family — the essence of healthy early attachments.

Such early attachments — emotional connections built through warm and consistent care-giving in infancy — create in the child the sense that “I am worthwhile.”  They also allow the baby to perceive the world as a good, predictable place.  Attachments are the basis for trust, perhaps the most fundamental social milestone necessary for healthy human survival.

Children can form attachments with any trustworthy individual, be it a teacher, another child, or any adult outside the family constellation.  This is why many early childhood programs assign attachment teachers in each classroom at the start of the school year, so that every child has a warm, reliable adult to count on for consistent support.  The attachment figure should be a model of social competence and emotional intelligence, an “emotional coach,” and Daniel Goleman would say — there to help the child identify and label feelings, manage and express them appropriately, and build connections with peers.  It’s often within the classroom setting where the child forms these initial connections and first friendships.

Mateo is attached to Yvonne.  This is an important factor in his response to her fall on the playground that afternoon. In addition to his own classroom teachers, she is another important adult in his life.  But Yvonne also has a genius for connecting with young children.  A long-time teacher before she became a director, she makes excellent use of her interactive strengths to connect with all children at the center.  They adore her.

At 4, Mateo is learning the guidelines for how to effectively express emotions and connect successfully with peers.  His healthy attachments, self-confidence, and expanding social skills all came together when he saw Yvonne lying on the bike path.  I doubt he gave it a second thought to go to her side and utter such a mature promise:  “I’ll watch over you.”

Yet, the journey of social competence can be complex.  Children often struggle with their feelings, their physical manifestations, and the social demands placed on them by virtue of being with a group of peers for most of their waking hours.

Joseph, a 3 year-old child in Mateo’s classroom, also witnessed Yvonne’s spill.  He approached her daily for about two weeks afterward to ask, “Are you OK?  Remember when you fell?”

At 3, Joseph is still building his repertoire of emotions.  He is emerging from the stage during which he has developed a basic sense of self.  Along with the appearance of emotions like pride and altruism, shame and anger arise as well.  Emotions are felt deeply, and can be confusing – so that witnessing another’s pain or distress can create distress in the child.  The first instinct may be to withdraw because the discomfort is too great.  This is evident in the anguished expression the face of an  infant’s who sees another infant cry.  (Infant classroom teachers are familiar with the collective wails that erupt following the cry of one baby.)

Conversely, a toddler may offer a crying classmate her teddy bear or lovey, in an early act of altruism — but likely because the lovey has always been a comfort to her.  Why shouldn’t it work its magic on somebody else?

In the case of this playground event, though, the distressed person is an adult to whom each child is emotionally connected.  For Mateo, Yvonne’s injury spurs him to protective action.  For Joseph, her injury causes him concern, but the motivation may be different.  He is likely more interested in how her injury affects him.  It’s unsettling — maybe even frightening — to consider that a strong adult is suddenly vulnerable.   The potential loss of safety and support shows up in the anxious daily check-in he has with her for the next two weeks.

Children deftly perceive that they need adult protection.  Even the child who acts out angrily, for whatever reason, prefers that an adult  stop him, rather than allow his aggression to spin out of control.  It is too scary to imagine that the adult is not in charge.  It’s in the instances of distress, frustration, or fear that children so rely on the adult to be there — not necessarily to rescue him, but to provide continuity of social and emotional support to try again.

Mateo and Joseph’s needs are different because they are at different developmental stages and because  they probably have  distinctive temperaments.  Regardless, they need — as all children do — adults in their lives who are trustworthy and who will be emotional coaches to them in their day to day lives.  A solid foundation of trust and attachment, and supportive practice, practice, practice, will provide the tools enabling to them to delight in happy times and the resilience needed to manage the inevitable low moments.

Yvonne continues to assure Joseph that she has healed and is feeling well.  That’s her job.  It’s Joseph’s job to keep inquiring about her health until he no longer needs to.

Mateo’s job is to continue navigating his own social relationships and understanding how his behavior impacts others.  In his confidently protective response to an adult’s injury, he reveals his optimistic view of the world.  In so doing, he is parent to us all.



And if you take my hand my son, all will be well when the day is done. And if you take my hand my son, all will be well when the day is done.  Day is done.*

*Peter, Paul and Mary, 1969