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May 09, 2013
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This article describes research that supports the core premise in this
nonprofit Web site - that lack of early-childhood nurturance significantly
hinders the psychological and social development of typical kids. The article is unusual in that it
focuses on an essential factor in healthy human relationships - empathy. See
my comments after the article. The links and hilights below
are mine. -
Peter Gerlach, MSW
+ + +
Since the Jan. 14 2010 death
of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old in South Hadley, Mass., who committed
suicide after being bullied by fellow students, many onlookers have
meditated on whether the circumstances that led to her after-school hanging
might have been avoided.
Could teachers have stepped in and stopped the bullying? Could parents have
done more to curtail bad behavior? Or could preventive measures have been
started years ago, in early childhood, long before bullies emerged and
started heaping abuse on their peers?
Increasingly, neuroscientists, psychologists and educators believe that
bullying and other kinds of violence
can indeed be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age. Over
the past decade, research in empathy - the ability to put ourselves in
another person's shoes - has suggested that it is key, if not the
key, to all human social interaction and morality.
Without empathy, we would have no cohesive society, no trust and no reason
not to murder, cheat, steal or lie. At best, we would act only out of
self-interest; at worst, we would be a collection of sociopaths.
Although human nature has historically been seen as essentially selfish,
recent science suggests that it is not.
The capacity for empathy is believed
to be innate in most humans, as well as some other species - chimps,
for instance, will protest unfair treatment of others, refusing to accept a
treat they have rightfully earned if another chimp doing the same work fails
to get the same reward.
The first stirrings of human empathy typically appear in babyhood: newborns
cry when hearing another infant's cry, and studies have shown that children
as young as 14 months offer unsolicited help to adults who appear to be
struggling to reach something. Babies have also shown a distinct preference
for adults who help rather than hinder others.
But, like language, the development
of this inherent tendency may be affected by early experience. As
evidence, look no further than ancient Greece - at the millennia-old
child-rearing practices of Sparta and Athens. Spartans, who were celebrated
almost exclusively as warriors, raised their ruling-class boys in an
environment of uncompromising brutality - enlisting them in boot camp at age
7, and starving them to encourage enough deviousness and cunning to steal
food - which skillfully bred yet more generations of ruthless killers.
In Athens, future leaders were brought up in a more nurturing and peaceful
way, at home with their mothers and nurses, starting education in music and
poetry at 6. They became pioneers of democracy, art, theater and culture.
"Just like we can train people to kill, the same is true with empathy. You
can be taught to be a Spartan or an Athenian - and you can taught to be
both," says Teny Gross, executive director of the outreach group Institute
for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in Providence, R.I., and a former
sergeant in the Israeli army.
What the ancient Greeks intuited is supported by research today.
Childhood - as early as
infancy - is now known to be a critical time for the development of empathy.
And although children can be astonishingly resilient, surviving and
sometimes thriving despite abuse and neglect, studies show that
those who experience such early
trauma are at much greater risk of becoming aggressive or even psychopathic
later on, bullying other children or being victimized by bullies
can be surprisingly damaging. In 2007, researchers published the
controlled study of the effect of being raised in an orphanage; that study,
and subsequent research on the same sample of Romanian orphans, found that
compared with babies placed with a foster family, those who were sent to
institutions had lower IQs, slower physical growth,
problems with human
and differences in functioning in brain areas related to emotional
Institutionalized infants do not experience being the
center of a loving family's attention; instead, they are cared for a
rotating staff of shift workers, which is inherently neglectful. Such
children miss out on intensive, one-on-one affection and attachment with a
parental figure, which babies need at that vulnerable age. Without that
experience, they learn early on that the world is a cold, insecure and
untrustworthy place. Their emotional needs having gone unmet, they frequently have trouble
understanding or appreciating the feelings of others.
Nearly 90% of brain growth takes place in the first five years of life, and
the minds of young children who have
been neglected or traumatized often fail to make the connection between
people and pleasure. That deficit can make it difficult for them to
feel or demonstrate love later on. "You can enhance empathy by the way you
treat children," says Martin Hoffman, an emeritus professor of psychology
at New York University and a pioneer of empathy research, "or you can kill
it by providing a harsh punitive environment."
The cold environment of an orphanage can be considered on a spectrum of
punishment, at the other end of which is simple child discipline - an issue
that sometimes confounds even the most mindful parents. How do you teach a
child right from wrong without being too tough, or slipping into abuse? Who
among us has not raised our voice - O.K., screamed - while disciplining our
But shouting at or, worse, hitting a child results in fear, rather than an
understanding on the child's part of why he or she is being punished, say
researchers. Over the long term, the routine use of corporal punishment,
such as spanking, not only fails to change behavior for the better, but has
also been shown to increase aggression in children.
"Instead of starting from the assumption that you have to beat the badness
out of a child, turn on that empathy and compassion switch," says Dacher
Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley,
and author of
Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.
In other words, start by teaching children to understand their own behavior
and feelings - it provides the basic tools for understanding the behavior
and feelings of others. For instance, when dealing with a child who has
hurt another person, help him or her "anchor how they felt in the moment,"
says Mary Gordon, founder of Roots
of Empathy, a school-based program designed to foster compassion. "We
always think we should start with, 'How do you think so-and-so felt?' But
you will be more successful if you start with, 'You must have felt very
upset.' The trick is to help
children describe how they felt, so that the next time this happens, they've
got language. Now, they can say 'I'm feeling like I did when I bit
When children are able to understand their own feelings, they are closer to
being able to understand that Johnny was also hurt and upset by being bitten
- that "switch" is the spark for a change in behavior.
But understanding suffering alone does not teach empathy, says Gordon, which
helps explain why children who suffer more - enduring abuse at home, for
instance - are more likely to become bullies. It's not that they don't know
what it feels like to be hurt; it's that they have learned that violence is
the way to express anger or assert power.
In Gordon's Roots of Empathy program, which is currently
being used in about 3,000 kindergartens, elementary schools and middle schools in Canada, and
40 schools in Seattle, children get to see a visiting parent and infant
interact in the classroom about once a month, and watch the foundations of
empathy being built. When the baby cries, the Roots of Empathy instructor
helps the mother and students think about what might be bothering the baby
and how to make things better.
Students are taught that a crying
baby isn't a bad baby, but a baby with a problem. By trying to figure
out what's going on, the children learn to see the world through the infant's
eyes, and to understand what it might be like to have needs but not be able
to ex-press them clearly.
"We love when we get a colicky baby," says Gordon, because then the mother
usually tells the class how frustrating and annoying it is when the baby
won't stop crying. That gives children insight into the parent's perspective
- and how children's behavior can affect adults - something they have often
never thought about. "If you look at the development of empathy, one of the
key features is perspective-taking," says Gordon. "In coaching that skill,
we help them [take the perspective of] their classmates."
To date, nine separate studies have
shown that Roots of Empathy has helped reduce bullying at school, and
increased supportive behavior among students. Many school districts
in the U.S., including New York City's, have recently expressed interest in
using Gordon's approach.
Setting an Empathetic Example
A child's individual capacity for
empathy can further be encouraged when parents model empathetic behavior
parents treat other people with compassion, selflessness and a lack of judgment, children copy those behaviors.
"Empathy can't be taught, but it can be caught," says Gordon.
Her own family was a shining example. As a young girl in Newfoundland,
Gordon says she grew up in a large, multigenerational family - including
four siblings, two grandparents and a mentally disabled uncle - that also
often included "strays." Her parents liked to take in people in need:
unmarried pregnant women who had no place to go, recently released prisoners
who would stop by for a free meal. Gordon also tagged along with her mother,
an artist (Gordon's father was the Canadian minister of labor), as she
visited poor families in the community, bringing them food, clothing and
coal for heat.
When young Mary sneered and asked why a woman stored coal in her bathtub
instead of bathing in it, her mother admonished her - but in private. "My
mom would never embarrass anyone, so she wouldn't embarrass me as a child
either. She saw the
in everybody," Gordon says. "In the car, she said, 'You judged that
woman when you made that face.' She would say, 'She's made the best
decisions she could with the challenges she has, and you don't know her
Not every child is raised by a Mother Gordon. But even children who have
survived rough environments - like the gang members Teny Gross of the
Institute for the Study and
Practice of Nonviolence works with in Providence - can be helped to
Gross has found that his outreach workers are most successful when they
build relation-ships based on caring and fairness. "People have a sense of
justice," Gross says, explaining why even troubled teens respond well when
counselors, with whom they have an ongoing relationship, take a firm stance
with them regarding their behavior. "[Our kids are] used to injustice;
they're used to abuse at school and from the police. But when constraints
come from a place of love and caring, people don't think it violates their
sense of justice."
Gross's program focuses on introducing young men and boys in gangs to a new
network of people who not only care about them, but do so dependably -
providing the kind of secure environment that many of them missed in
childhood. By employing former gang members to mentor the troubled boys,
Gross makes it easier for them to foster relationships of mutual
understanding and connection with one another.
Mentors show up
at the boys' important events - court dates, funerals - demonstrating care
and concern. They also organize social outings for the boys, like a trip to
a local beach last summer for a day of surfing. That excursion purposefully
included boys from rival gangs, in the hopes that the introductions could
help reduce violence later on.
Indeed, research shows that simple
exposure to other kinds of people in a friendly setting can increase your
empathy toward them. Although some gangsters and sociopaths may never
be reachable, Gross holds out hope. He points to statistics such as the near
halving of the U.S. murder rate over the last 20 years that suggest a
"different life is possible. It's not easy, but a lot of it is common
sense," he says.
Szalavitz is the co-author of
Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential - and Endangered
(Morrow, April 2010).
This article proposes...
empathy is a learned personality trait
which is essential for satisfying human relationships.
young children are directly affected by
the degree of empathy their caregivers model.
parents and schools who proactively teach
young kids how to identify and understand their - and other people's -
feelings in various situations help their kids develop empathy.
young children traumatized by neglect and
abuse tend to show aggressive behavior (e.g. "bullying") later.
The implications of these
research-based ideas are profound. One implication is that unempathic
(wounded) parents are unlikely to encourage empathy in their kids, so
the generations and weakens our society.
Secondly, these findings suggest the high need for teachers to be educated
on "the roots of empathy" and motivated to help students develop it. The
findings also suggests the value of teaching family and school counselors,
social workers, day care and church-school staffs, family-life educators,
and pediatricians about empathy-development.
Third, these findings help explain why
childhoods have difficulty communicating and solving relationship problems
effectively (Lesson 2 here). The core of effective communication is personal
which is needed to sustain two-person