Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Using Nature to Teach the Golden Rule

This previous Sunday, I taught a Primary class about the concept of the Golden Rule. What we call “the Golden Rule” today is at the heart of nearly every world religion—and Christianity is no exception. Jesus espoused the Golden Rule in a number of places throughout the scriptures. In Luke 6:31, Jesus said: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” (See also Matthew 7: 12 and 3 Nephi 14:12.) Of course, he was also was the perfect example of the Golden Rule himself: treating everyone with respect and love regardless of their social status.

As I was reflecting on the best way to teach the lesson, I realized that we need to develop empathy in order to live by the Golden Rule. That is, we need to be able to imagine what another person must be thinking or feeling in order to treat them the way they want to be treated. As Laura Padilla Walker, assistant professor in the School of Family Life at BYU, has stated: “Empathy is one of the foundational moral emotions. It is linked to moral action. It’s a feeling that compels people to act compassionately while reasoning alone might not.”

In an article for BYU Magazine, M. Sue Bergin writes: “Children who don’t develop empathy can become callous adults, oblivious to the hurt and pain they leave in their wake. Researchers say that empathy, like other emotions such as guilt, is not something that matures on its own—it must be learned. Parents play an important role in helping their children acquire empathy by guiding them toward it from infancy, by acting as an ’emotion coach,’ and by setting an example of empathetic behavior.”

While I was preparing for my Primary lesson, I did a quick Google search to see if anyone had any creative lesson ideas for teaching children empathy. Interestingly enough, one suggestion that seemed to keep popping up in the search results was that encouraging children to take care of plants and/or animals was one of the best ways to help them develop empathy.

This seems very plausible to me. I could see how nurturing a living thing such as a plant or an animal could help give kids early experiences with building empathy. It’s hard not to develop sentimental feelings for something that you watch and care for. Learning how to nurture a living thing can help kids see how their actions affect other living things. Think of it as a mini-stewardship that can help prepare children for bigger, more important stewardships later on in life. Sounds like good Golden Rule training to me.

Maybe I’ll give it a try with my own kids. For those of you more seasoned parents out there, has this been true of your experience? Have you seen your children develop empathy through nurturing living things?

  • Julie Price says:

    I wish I would’ve thought of that! I was dismayed that the lesson was all about not stealing possessions and being careful with other people’s stuff, so I steered clear of that because my kids are 8 years old and that seemed to be too basic. We had a good conversation about empathy and compassion, but including nurturing would have been perfect! May have to do a postscript this Sunday. 🙂

  • There’s a whole book on this and other ecology/emotional development issues– (a little dated, it was written in 1995), titled Ecopsychology.