“I find I’m spending more and more time helping my children settle
disputes. Some kids seem to have fewer social skills than the children I
had when I started teaching 15 years ago. They just grab what they want or
hurt other kids as soon as they can’t get their own way, or they try to
bully their way into getting what they want. I keep telling them to ‘use
words, not fists’ but it’s often like talking to a wall. I think some kids
actually feel scared by what’s going on.” (from a Kindergarten teacher)
Many teachers tell me they spend too much time trying to maintain a sense
of safety in their classrooms and admit to resorting to more “time outs”
and harsher “discipline techniques” than in the past. While learning how to
interact in positive ways is a vital developmental task of early childhood,
children seem to have more trouble getting involved with group activities
or sharing materials. Teachers also say they are seeing younger children
exhibit the kind of bullying and teasing that used to be characteristic of
older children. Children get teased, ridiculed, and rejected for not
looking right or not having the right logos on their lunchboxes or clothes.
And, an apparent increase in antisocial behaviour has led some schools to
abolish recess because children are being aggressive and hurting each other
on the playground (Zimmerman, et al., 2005).
What is going on? Why are teachers reporting these social problems? How did
things get this way? What is causing some children to develop social
behaviour disturbances that I have come to characterize as “Compassion
Learning to be connected or disconnected
Here are two scenarios with babies fussing in their cribs. If things
continue for the baby as described below, which baby do you think is more
likely to be the one to cause trouble in the classroom described by the
Baby #1 is crying in his crib. His father picks him up and cuddles him. The
baby lets out a few more yelps and his father begins to sing a soothing
song. As the singing continues, the baby begins to watch his father’s face,
and smiles and coos. They begin smiling and cooing a little chorus together
as they look at each other. In this situation, the father serves as the
comforter of the baby as they have a mutual give-and-take exchange that
ultimately leads to a contented baby and parent.
Baby #2 is crying in her crib. Her mother comes in and pushes buttons on
the electronic crib toy that the family received as a baby gift. Lights
start flashing, music plays and pictures appear. The baby quickly turns to
look at it, stops crying as images and sounds keeps thing going fast and
furious. The “bells and whistles” seem to startle Baby #2 into silence.
Every time a button is pushed, the images, bells and whistles grab her
attention. There is little or no give-and-take interaction with her mother
or the sense of comfort and warmth it can bring. The baby does stop the
crying but she is not learning how to connect with her mother as they adapt
their behaviour in a mutually rewarding way (Levin & Rosenquest, 2001).
If you decided that baby #2 is more likely than baby #1 to be causing
trouble in the classroom described at the beginning, you are correct.
Children may be born with the predisposition for learning how to have
positive relationships with others. But if and how that predisposition is
developed depends on their experience with others—for instance, how much
they interact with others, how the person they are interacting with
responds to their behaviour, and how they see people treating each other
(i.e., how Baby #1’s father responds and interacts with him). Increasingly,
children learn what they need to say and do to others to get their own
needs met, and to work out problems with others in a give-and-take
manner—and to empathize with how another person is feeling based on their
behaviour (Bowlby, 1982). Of course, children’s level of development will
affect the way in which they understand and work on social relationships;
for instance, their early egocentrism can cause them to focus more on how
things affect themselves, not others. But appropriate social experiences
help them learn positive social skills at their current level of
It is vital that children have real life, meaningful experiences right from
the start that help them learn these skills, because research suggests that
patterns of behaviour by age eight are related to behaviour in adulthood
(Eron, Gentry & Schlegel, 1994). Baby #1 shows us how this process
begins as he and his dad develop their own special way of interacting and
attaching. Unfortunately, if Baby #2 continues along the track with flashy
toys—with more machines, gizmos and screens—she is less likely to learn how
to connect with people, to learn how to build caring and connected
relationships, or to be able to work things out in an age appropriate way.
Thus, she would be more likely to be one of the difficult children
described by the teacher above; for instance, getting into frequent
conflicts with other children over sharing toys or doing mean-spirited
things to hurt others’ feelings.
What’s going on today?
I have come to characterize the problems many of today’s children are
having with social relationships, learning to decenter, and empathizing
with others as Compassion Deficit Disorder. There are several factors
contributing to the situation:
• Children are spending increasing amounts of time with more and more
technology and screens at younger and younger ages (Levin, 2013). We see
this beginning with Baby #2. At the very least, this means that children
have less time to interact with others in the real world where they would
have opportunities to build age-appropriate give-and-take social
interactions and relationships with others. It also means that children
become more and more dependent on screens and develop fewer interests and
skills using their own devices.
• As children are glued to screens, there is much they can see that models
anti-social, mean-spirited, and highly stereotyped behaviour. This content
can teach anti-social lessons that children bring to their relationships
and interactions with others.
• When children do play, many of the toys marketed today are highly
realistic replicas of what they see on screens. These toys can channel
children into imitating what they saw rather than engaging in rich,
creative play in which they are the problem finders and problem solvers—two
essential skills of positive social relationships (Levin, 2009).
• The many families that are experiencing financial and personal stress in
these times often need to rely on screens to occupy their children and also
have less time to oversee what their children watch. Thus, these children
are more subject to the lessons that screens and popular culture have to
• Whether it is to develop talents and give their children what parents
think are special early advantages, or to keep them from being glued to
screens at home, or just for enjoyment, many families (especially those
that are well-resourced) are planning more and more structured and
organized activities for their children outside of the home at younger
ages. While children may learn valuable skills from these activities, they
are often controlled by adults and have prescribed actions where children
do not have opportunities to organize or learn how to organize their own
activities and interactions with other children. Again, in this situation,
these children have less opportunity to develop the skills that taking
charge of their own actions can teach.
What can we do?
Often, when children behave in ways that hurt or upset others—when they
exhibit compassion deficit disorder—adults respond by blaming the children
and punishing them for what they did. This response assumes that the
children both understand what they are doing and choose to do it. By
punishing or shaming them, the thinking goes, children will behave with
compassion the next time. But given what we know about how children learn
from active experience, and what I have described above about the
experiences today’s children are and are not having regarding social
relationships, this non-compassionate response is exactly the opposite
response children and society need!
Instead, we need to work to:
• Limit exposure to the high tech, media and commercial cultures as much as
possible when children are young. The longer we can delay this exposure,
the more opportunities children have to build a healthy sense of self,
quality play, and a repertoire of skills for relating with others (See
Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment; www.TRUCEteachers.org).
• Help children make sense of the things to which they are exposed. One of
the best ways to do this is to stay connected with children around these
issues. For instance, we can have conversations with children that allow us
to discover and value what they know and think, and then base our responses
on what children say.
• Influence the lessons that children are learning about relationships and
how to participate in them. Too often, schools are sacrificing
opportunities for children to develop social knowledge and skills in favour
of intensified academic instruction (See Defending the Early Years;
www.deyproject.org). The social curriculum is now so important, and there
are many resources to help with this.
• Connect with other adults in children’s lives—such as other family
members, other parents and teachers—to support each other’s efforts to
promote children’s positive social development and relationships.
• Reach out within communities—with organizations and policymakers—to try
to change, in big and little ways, the current economic environment that
has made the marketing of technology and media culture such powerful forces
in children’s lives (see Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood
Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and Loss. Vol. 1: Attachment (2nd Ed.). New
York: Basic Books (originally published in 1969).
Eron, L, Gentry, J. & Schlegel, P. (Eds.). (1994). Reason to Hope: A
Psychosocial Perspective on Violence and Youth. Washington, DC: American
Levin, D.E. (2008). “Compassion Deficit Disorder? The Impact of Consuming
Culture on Children’s Relationships” Risking Human Security: Attachment and
Public Life. Marcie Green (Ed.).London, UK: Karnac Books.
Levin, D.E. (May, 2009). Problem Solving Deficit Disorder. Community
Levin, D. E. (2013). Beyond Remote-Controlled Childhood: Teaching Young
Children in the Media Age. Washington, DC: National Association for the
Education of Young Children.
Levin, D. E. & Rosenquest, B. (2001). The Increasing Role of Electronic
Toys in the Lives of Infants and Toddlers: Should We Be Concerned?
Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood. 2(2): 242-247.
Zimmerman, F., Glew, G., Christakis, D., & Katon, W. (April, 2005).
Early Cognitive Stimulation, Emotional Support, and Television Watching as
Predictors of Subsequent Bullying Among Grade-School Children. JAMA
Paediatrics, 159(4): 384-388.
Diane E. Levin, PhD, is a Professor of Early Childhood Education at
Wheelock College in Boston, where she teaches a course on children’s play,
a summer institute on Media Education, and a service learning course which
takes Wheelock students to Northern Ireland to study how schools can help
communities affected by violence and conflict heal. She has published 8
books, most recently Beyond Remote-Controlled Childhood (NAEYC). She is a
founder of Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE; www.truceteachers.org), which
prepares materials to help parents deal with the media and commercial
culture in their children’s lives, and Defending the Early Years ( www.deyproject.org), which work to
promote appropriate early childhood teaching practices in this era of often
inappropriate mandated school reform.