Tuesday, June 09, 2015

We Are Designed To Help

When there are toys or other items scattered across the classroom floor, I say, for instance, "There are rubber bands on the floor," then stand there looking at the misplaced rubber bands. Sometimes I add the clarifying sentence, "They belong in the rubber band box." I don't start picking them up, I don't look around at the children imploringly, I don't ask for help. I simply phrase the situation as a statement of fact, and invariably children start to pick those rubber bands up and put them in the box.

When we're working puzzles, I pretend to struggle to get the pieces in their proper places. I don't ask for help, but invariably, a child, usually more than one, gets to work at my side fitting those pieces into place for me.

When we're counting, I get it wrong, "One, 2, 3, 5 . . ." The kids usually let me start over a couple of times in the effort to get it right, but invariably they take it upon themselves to correct me, to coach me through a proper count.

When we need to move something heavy, I say, "We need to move this heavy table," and invariably I'm swarmed with helping hands.

And I'm sure there are those of you who will call me rude, but I rarely thank the children because they don't need any external reward, the reward of helping others is built into the act.

There are social scientists (such as economist Adam Smith) and philosophers (such as Thomas Hobbes) and artists (such as William Golding) who insist that mankind is motivated primarily by his own self-interest. Author Ayn Rand even went so far as to call selfishness and virtue. And yes, if you manage matters so that resources are artificially scarce, or so that there is a strict hierarchy in which we must vie for money or status, or so that obedience is exacted through a system of rewards and punishments, we can manufacture circumstances in which humans behave in selfish competition with one another. But in the real world, in day-to-day life, this has not been my experience with human nature.

Not long ago a car drove past me as I walked on the sidewalk. The driver had left his briefcase open on the roof of the car and a cascade of papers formed a tail behind him. I was in the midst of crossing a street, but when I got to the other curb, I thought, "I should help that guy." When I turned to start picking up papers I saw a dozen other people with the same idea, men and women in suits and heels, already scrounging around the gutters. By the time the driver got back to us, we had gathered hundreds of papers into nice bundles.

Human beings, of course, can behave selfishly, but from my experience it's the urge to help our fellow humans, altruism, that is far more often the norm, unless we've specifically designed things to pit us against one another. And yes, I've met some broken adults, people whose life experiences have lead them to behave uncaringly, but I've never met a child who will not help me, without my asking, when he understands I need his help. We are designed to help one another, it's how our species has evolved, it's how our species thrives, and we do it until we're taught otherwise.

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