Every mass shooting, act of terrorism and hate crime I read/watch/hear about in the news chips away a piece of my heart and makes me want to pull my daughters close, as if my hugs can protect them. But ultimately, none of these tragedies reduces my faith in humanity.
The simple reminder that our nature, as a species, is fundamentally good is a topic I addressed more philosophically in a separate column. But this message is even more vital to convey to our children, who need to feel safe instead of scared and hopeless. They need our help to make sense of the world and carry it forward in the right direction.
When faced with clear, ethical choices, the vast majority of us choose good over bad and even good over neutral. Studies from the Yale Infant Cognition Center have shown that young babies – after watching a puppet show in which one puppet demonstrated selflessness and another selfishness – were much more likely to choose the selfless puppet as their favorite. Other studies have shown that infants will spontaneously help an adult who seems to be in need – such as trying to get to something that’s out of reach – without any incentives.
There’s also fascinating research about how altruism spikes after disasters. Given that people are suffering themselves, it would be logical for individuals to be more, not less, selfish in times of hardship. One study pointed out that not only do people come together to help each other after a crisis – prolonged ice storms in Quebec, in this case – but the crime rate in the city decreased in the days after the storms.
In the past year, a whole meme developed around related wisdom attributed to children’s public television preacher Fred Rogers: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” The advice was something his mother would tell him when he watched scary news.
I paraphrase it to my daughters when they become aware of a tragic event, such as a school shooting, because they feel that they can’t do anything about tragedy, and they should find comfort and hope that others are doing something.
“Most people want to help when they see someone who is in trouble,” Michael Leannah writes in his 2017 book “Most People,” a children’s book that speaks precisely to the message that we all need to be repeating to the next generation. “Most people want to make other people – even strangers – feel good. Most people are very good people.”
It’s cleverly illustrated by Jennifer E. Morris with a racially diverse cast of characters who include a kind, book-loving motorcyclist, a homeless woman and a pie maker. It’s a great book to read anytime to your preschooler, or if your kid is an early reader, they can read it to you.
The sentiment itself is worth conveying to children of any age.
Explaining the ‘bad’
Putting aside the philosophical arguments about the existence of evil or free will, the more fundamental point is that even when someone does something bad, that person can still be good. I consider myself an ethical and conscientious person, but I have hurt people over the years, sometimes intentionally. And I’ve grown to be a better person for those regrettable decisions. I bet you have, too.
“Some people do bad things” such as lying, stealing, hurting and destroying, Leannah writes. “But most people don’t do those things. If you could line up all the people who want to be good and all the people who want to be bad, the good line would stretch from here to the tallest mountain. All the people in the bad line could crowd together in a dark and gloomy room.”
Yes, there are reasons people do bad things, and we have a collective civic responsibility to address those causes of violence, but the lesson for young children is that even when people do bad things, they can change. We have the capacity to learn, repent and change.
The child in the mirror
“When you see something bad happening, you may soon see someone trying to help,” Leannah writes, echoing Rogers. “The helper might be you!”
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Because most of us are good, because we want to to give and receive love, because we inherently want to help people, the overwhelming response people have to violence is nonviolence. We stand in lines to give blood. We gather, hold hands and light candles. We bring food or clothes or whatever others need. We donate to charities. We pray in churches, synagogues and temples. We express empathy and support. We stand up and take action. That’s who we are. Humans help.
There will be more tragedy to help unpack for our children. And when you do, remind them of the inherent goodness of most people, that most people help, not hurt, and that you and they can help, too.