(without losing your heart)

Developing Empathy

I increasingly worry about the lack of empathy and growing sense of entitlement in the people around us—particularly those who have the power to do some serious damage. Clearly, capitalism and the need to compete at all costs rewards some of the most despicable qualities humans can possess, but the way we raise our children can make a significant difference and to me is an important part of making the world a better place. I reject the idea that personality disorders and mental illnesses are ever entirely about the genes one inherits; the behaviors and ways of thinking we “inherit” from family is far more influential in my opinion. Many (Steven Pinker and Iain McGilchrist for example) have persuasively argued that the evolution of empathy has been essential for the development of human societies. When leaders, whether of countries, companies, or families, reveal a lack of empathy for the people they lead, we have wars, lay offs, and abuse that are devastating to the victims. Perhaps I will take on writing a convincing argument for why we need to nurture empathy as a way to save the human world later, but it’s much easier to consider how we might nurture empathy and an ethical stance that is healthier for the world in our children. As always, parents must decide what they want to prioritize.

Theorists have argued for various types of empathy, but there is general agreement that empathy is an innate ability of “normally functioning” humans. It often first becomes visible when an infant is witness to another person in pain and they react. Empathy is part of what helps us be social, and other primates are capable of some of the ways humans are empathetic, but our increased ability seems directly connected to our ability to think abstractly. Pinker argued that our increased ability to empathize is connected to the novel and our emersion in other people’s lives through these acts fiction, and research on theory of mind demonstrates that the ability to take the perspective of others develops gradually as a child’s understanding of the world grows. Piaget documented the stage-like qualities of perspective taking. When I argue for the need for empathy in our children, it is about both the early emotional reaction to the emotional states of the people around them and the later ability of children to fully understand that other people have experiences that are different from our own and reflect their unique experiences. To be fully empathic in my sense of the term, someone needs to comprehend the different perspectives and be able to feel them, but I argue that it will not develop if it is not in some ways nurtured in children.

The most important way of nurturing empathy is to offer it to our children. This means not being authoritarian in our interactions whenever possible but explaining the reasons for our actions and sympathizing with our children’s distress when our demands are unpleasant. This is not to say that the jades “This hurts me more than it hurts you” is appropriate. In fact, this is the opposite of empathy. Perhaps the lessons start with being sensitive to the likes and dislikes of our children. Both of my children were upset by water in their faces during baths, which made hair washing very difficult. I compromised, sympathized, and apologized during the process. After trying different methods, I found the best and safest way to give my infants a bath was simply to get in the tub with them, allowing me to give them and myself a sense of safety (after the seat I had purchased to give support flipped over!) while still accomplishing the task.

With almost all infants, physical closeness provides a sense of safety and comfort and can be a way to show empathy. Our bodies are important tools with young children. There are a few children who are so hypersensitive that they do not enjoy being touched, but even in these rare cases, being close can help. Closeness with just anyone does not help though. My oldest child hated being picked up by people she did not know well, and I found on vacations with extended family, that staying in my arms was her greatest comfort. My behavior seemed selfish to some of my extended family, but I could see how much distress my child experienced when adults attempted to pass her around like a toy and the bigger children all tried to show their maturity by picking her up. We were in Greece quite often when this problem presented itself, and my lack of being able to speak Greek probably made things more difficult. I tried to explain that my daughter didn’t like being picked up, but this became an early clash in cultures for us. Many additional clashes will clearly happen as there is growing awareness that making our children kiss and hug the scary new relative primes them for sexual abuse.

More importantly, I believe, is how we respond to our children after we punish them. I remember with one child, when she was two, she kept putting coins into the VCR (for the younger generation, that was what we had instead of dvd players). I could not get her father to stop dropping coins on the floor, posing various choking hazards, but as I relaxed about her not swallowing them, she found the alternative of putting them places. I would sweep her up and put her in her playpen, which really seemed to feel like jail to her. I would leave her there for only a minute, and then I would carefully explain why I had put her there. Every time. The explanation involved lots of hugs, sympathizing with her distress, and comforting her.

With my other child, the problem became hitting when she was three and four. This example is important because it combines the response to punishment and more active empathy building. As the younger child, she had competition for my attention and for use of toys. She never hit me, but a few times, she hit her sister. She would immediately get a time out, which always led to crying, and afterwards, I would sit with her to talk. I explained how important it was that she not hurt her sister or anybody if she could avoid it. I assured her that I loved her and worked out strategies for how to talk to her sister as well as working on controlling her temper. I wish I could remember the details better, but I remember very clearly working with her to think about how her sister felt. In both these cases, I was pushing them to understand the situation at a level beyond what they were currently capable of because this is how higher levels of thinking are developed.

It was in the connection between my children that I worked most consistently and seriously on developing empathy. I talked consistently with them about thinking about how their sister felt, reminding them that they loved each other and helping them find better ways to resolve conflict and cooperate. I was as actively involved as I could be in those early years. Now that they are both teens, I need only remind them about their tone, and they have never had a drawn out fight—ever. I think of all the fights I had with my younger brother and realize that there generally was no adult in the room, and when there was, there was usually a simple and forceful demand that we stop fighting, period. Clearly, I developed empathy without this particular intervention, but I have the advantage of children who rarely fight and are far more loving with each other than I ever was with either of my siblings.

Thinking that involves empathy is best learned by involving our children in thinking that  includes empathy. Lessons in morality and responsibility are best taught this way. In the last few years, my youngest daughter has given money to performers and homeless people while I was with her. I actively admire her giving of her own money, and we have talked about the different views about giving money to those in need. These are moment when we share our empathy for others and contemplate solutions. These types of conversations are, I believe, the most important ones to have with our children, but the task of raising caring, responsible, and intelligent children is accomplished in a million small conversations and actions. How have you nurtured empathy with your children?

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