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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Yawning with Sociopaths

            Have you heard of the principle of contagious yawning? Researchers have been fascinated for years with the study of human empathy, and whether you yawn when someone else yawns is a sign of how much you care about the feelings of others. Those who yawn when others yawn have a greater ability to connect with others emotionally. Those who don’t yawn in response to a yawn have a more difficult time connecting. And all little children are sociopaths.
            We sing a song in preschool which begins, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” We proceed through several verses, but instead of merely changing the action I also change the feeling. When you’re sad and you know it, when you’re grumpy, silly, scared, etc., and when you’re sleepy and you know it you close your eyes. During this verse I always yawn several times, and the only time any of the kids yawn is when I sing, “If you’re sleepy and you know it then your yawns will surely show it.” Then some of them do, but not many.
            I was curious about this response because I was familiar with the yawning and empathy connection, so I did some research. It didn’t take long to find out that most children under five won’t yawn when you yawn, and the hypothesis is that it’s because empathy is a learned (and therefore taught) behavior. So when your three year old smacks the baby, she isn’t being mean- she’s being scientific. Either she wanted to see what would happen if she hit her little brother, or her little brother was the target of angry feelings and she hit him without the intention causing him pain. She just wanted him to go away, and hitting was a natural response.
            We all know we should teach our children not to hit. Hitting is socially unacceptable. We send them to time out and make them apologize. This is good. Learning not to hit is an important life skill, because the underlying premise is teaching them to control their anger. But I worry that we’re only teaching less than half the lesson here, and that huge problems in our country and in our culture come from the lack of the other greater parts.
            In preschool, we talk about feelings. A lot. Almost everyday. Not just the feelings we feel, but how we express them and what each feeling feels like. The first lesson about feelings is that every feeling is okay to feel. It’s okay to be angry, just like it’s okay to be happy. Being sad isn’t fun, but it isn’t bad to feel sad, you’re not doing anything wrong. Every feeling, every emotion is valid and valuable and no matter what they’re feeling I want to give them the words to talk about it. “I feel angry because,” and “it makes me sad when” are just as important to express, if not more so, than “I feel happy because.”
            That’s the first feelings lesson. I think that the thing we are missing most in the country are people in positions of power and authority who received and took to heart the first lesson, “don’t do it because it’s bad.” The lessons on feelings continue in preschool with “The Feelings Game.” We sit in a circle and sing a song, “Look at my body, and tell me this: Do you know what feeling this is?” and I point to someone. They decide on a feeling and express it with their body. Then using only the facial and physical cues, the other kids have to guess what feeling it is. Sad and happy are usually obvious, but we also do shy, scared, sick, silly, wiggly, proud, bored, jealous, grateful, and surprised.
            This game serves two purposes. It makes each child consider what feeling they want to portray and what that feeling feels like, which is introspective, and also it teaches them to look at the emotional cues of others to determine how they feel, which is extrospective (yes, it’s a word, but mostly in psychology texts). The biggest developmental “wow” this game provides is when the students realize, “Wait, they have feelings too?”
            Little kids are sophists. They believe the word revolves around them and disappears when they close their eyes. It’s a natural perspective when everyone in your life is there to take care of you. But we have to help them grow out of that, and getting them to recognize their own feelings is the first part. Helping them recognize feelings in others is the second.
            There is a third part. This is the part I feel is most lacking in our society, in our leaders, in our entitled culture, and possibly in our whole world. The third feelings lesson is “I did that.” This is the last part of every time out and the part right before I give an exceptional student a sticker. This is where we assign responsibility.
            If a student shares a toy with someone else who really wants it or gives up a seat so close friends can sit by each other, I get the attention of the whole class. I bring the helpful student to everyone’s attention and say, “Jordan just shared a toy with Brennan that Brennan really wanted. How do you think Brennan feels?”
The class looks at Brennan’s smile and says, “Happy!”
            “Who made Brennan feel happy?”
The class ponders, then shouts, “Jordan!”
            “Good job Jordan. You did that!” And Jordan gets both a sticker and the understanding that his actions changed someone else.
            The opposite is also true. Jon is crying because Lisa hit him. This time I don’t get everyone’s attention, just those two. “Lisa, how does Jon feel?” She looks at his tears.
            “Why does he feel sad?” This question doesn’t usually get an answer right away because no one wants to admit to wrong doing, so I have to prompt. “Does he feel sad because it’s Tuesday?”
            “Does he feel sad because you hit him?” Long pause. Then a nod. Then the explanation. “Hitting is bad because it hurts people. Jon is sad because you hit him. You did that. How can you make it better?”
            She still has to go to time out, because hitting is a time out offense. Does this sound harsh? It shouldn’t. We can and we should protect our children from some of the consequences of their actions, such as I will intervene right away before Jon tries to hit Lisa back, but we should not protect them from the responsibility of their actions. We have to stop teaching our children to be victims in their own lives. We need to show them what the consequences of their actions are so that they never wonder how much they can get away with.
            When Lisa comes out of time out we play act through the problem with Jon again, this time with the whole class playing along. “How are they feeling?” I ask. Lisa is angry and Jon is sad. “What would be a better choice?”
            “Lisa can ask for the toy and say please.”
            “Jon can share.”
            “They can take turns.”
            And so we practice the last feelings lesson, and the one I repeat the most often. All feelings are okay to feel, but you have to decide what you want to do with them. You can choose. If you’re angry, that’s all right to be angry. What do you choose to do? Something that will make everyone sad, or something that can make you and others happy?
            Does this cut into my teaching  time? Yes. Sometimes a lot. But it’s more important to me that we talk about their feelings and the consequences while they’re happening. We can talk about the number 4 or the letter F next time. We have to take the time with our children to help them understand, so our little sociopaths don’t grow up to be huge egoists.
            I’m going to teach them to yawn.


  1. I worry sometimes that I missed the boat on this one with Scarlet. I have revved up the "empathy" talk recently, but she is such a sociopath right now. LOL. But she's only 4, and i haven't heard of the yawn theory before. Maybe as she gets closer to five, it'll be easier for her to understand. She's a pretty typical 3rd child, though

  2. Love this, such an important thing to remember as a parent. You are awesome!