(without losing your heart)


Developing Empathy

IMG_0739 I increasingly worry about the lack of empathy and growing sense of entitlement in the people around us—particularly thosewho 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?


Infant sleep arrangements

One of the things that truly surprised me as a soon-to-be parent was that people had very strong opinions about where a baby should sleep. There also seemed to be lots of options: in cribs in their own rooms, first in bassinets or cradles in their own rooms and then cribs, first in bassinets or cradles in their mothers’ rooms and then in a crib in their own rooms, first in basinets or cradles in their mothers’ rooms and then in cribs in their mothers’ rooms . . . or simply in their mothers’ beds. Well, the US government now actively discourages parents from having their babies sleep with them because it is too easy for parents to turn over and crush or smother their infants, but I would argue that this depends a great deal on how parents sleep. In fact, the whole debate should revolve primarily around parent’s sleeping needs and styles and, of course, the financial situation. Nevertheless, cultures introduce a number of strong opinions–often viewed as mandates.


The mainstream US culture (if we can pretend momentarily that this is an actual reality) has pressed for a long time to make infants as independent as possible. This probably has its roots in the experiences of pioneers who tended to lose more infants than they safely saw to childhood. Believing that infants should from birth be raised to be independent may have had more to do with parents’ protecting themselves from caring too much for their infants than the needs of the infants. Erik Erikson has some compelling insights into this in his book Childhood and Society. The idea, however, of infants having their own room was largely an impossibility until the housing boom of the 1950s. Living in New York City has made this very real for me because my family members in Ohio simply cannot understand why I live in an apartment with only one bathroom or why my children must be forced to share a bedroom. Giving you children a “nursery” is in large part a question of status: I am rich enough to have nursery, and this is obviously superior to any other arrangement that they cannot afford. Compare this idea creating an independent child just be giving them their own room or not allowing them to sleep with their parents sometimes when they are older to the Greek and Italian habit of having their children never leaving home; they often will move into the apartment upstairs or next door instead. Similarly, Mexicans have brought their habit of living with extended family to the US, reportedly occupying whole blocks upon occasion. The tendency is for us to accept how we see most people doing things as “natural” or “better.” So what does psychological theory have to say on this?

Psychology in fact rarely has anything specific to say about anything–except for when that specific study has been done. And in fact it exists at http://cosleeping.nd.edu and other places. If you don’t know already, you need to think critically about research because it takes a lot of research before you can be even moderately certain of anything. This is part of the reason that “official advice” keeps changing: new research. I’ll devote a blog to the problem of depending on a few research studies or depending on the research of only a single individual or laboratory, but the National Institute of Health now recommend sharing a room but not a bed with infants (https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sts/Pages/default.aspx). The research largely attempts to isolate variables so that policy can be made based on correlations. The difficulty is that one cannot reliably infer causation from a correlation. And it can be entirely without theory. Theory, I would argue, is often a better guide because it describes the nature of relationships between variables (or better yet, in my opinion, does not divide the world into discrete variables, but I will make an effort to discuss that more elsewhere). There are really two theoretical approaches that offer guidance.

The first is the idea of evolution. It is a very imperfect approach because we are extremely limited in our ability to test hypotheses drawn from this approach, but the idea of evolution offers a way of theorizing how we might have evolved to function. We do not know much about how humans lived half a million years ago when our species seems to have become distinct. Nor do we know the details about how we lived when civilization emerged about 10,000 years ago. Nevertheless, due to the necessity of breastfeeding and the simple accommodations that were available, it does not seem too careless to assume that infants slept within close proximity to their mothers. The difficulty of keeping them warm enough to survive suggests that body warmth was essential. Therefore, believing that we evolved while sleeping in our mothers’ arms seems to make sense, thus one argument is that infants evolved to “expect” or be predisposed to thriving when they have skin-to-skin contact routinely with another person. This theory suggests that babies sleeping with their mothers.

But as I indicated, it is hard to find much evidence for or against evolutionary theories. One theory that has a great deal of evidence, though is in need a lot of refinement still in my opinion, is attachment theory. Briefly, attachment theory argues that infants need a secure attachment to become healthy adults and that any attachment is better than none because the complete absence of attachment may result in the infant’s death. As psychologists learn more about what makes a secure attachment and how influential it is, we should be trying to use common sense about how to assure security. I do not believe that sleeping with an infant assures a secure attachment nor that it is necessary for a secure attachment, but forcing a child from your bed is quite likely to result in feeling like a rejection. Appropriate intimacy with an infant can only be a good thing, and determining what is appropriate can best be determines by paying attention to how the infant reacts. I know for certain that my babies were very content when they slept in my arms.

Practicality still places demands above and beyond theory however. I was worried that my husband would turn over on the baby and crush her and terrified that she might fall out of bed, so I my babies fell asleep in my arms but slept nearby in a safe crib or playpen. As they aged, I never refused to have them in my bed, though did work toward one child sleeping on the floor next to me as my career became more demanding. If a parent knows they are more likely to start screaming at the child if their sleep is often interrupted, that is far more important than the comfort babies might take from sleeping with a parent. So, in short, think about it and decide what makes the most sense for your living arrangements, sleep needs, and infant needs. I wish I had know about the cribs that can be attached to beds, giving the infant protection from being crushed or falling out of bed while keeping the baby within reach of a parent. When a mother is breastfeeding, this seems an obvious solution!


Many parents have wished for an instruction manual on how to raise children, and many writers have tried to provide one, but the truth is few “experts” agree on what the “right thing to do” is. Frequently, they can’t even agree on the questions. And there’s a good reason—or several good reasons—for the lack of agreement. Individual differences are one issue: It is true that not all children are the same. I get frustrated when my students write, “Everybody is different,” because while true, it is an utterly useless statement. The question is, How are we different? And similar? Our similarities and differences are always evidence for understanding what it is to be human, and understanding these can guide is in choosing a path forward. To say that everybody is different seems to bring an end to the conversation when it should be the beginning.

But the bigger issue is that we have different priorities and different goals for our children. Thus when we read parenting books, we have very different reactions. Some advise makes sense to us and some doesn’t. Some feels right, while others feel wrong or simply too weird. The source of our disagreements is, however, rarely visible. One goal of this blog is to make the cause of disagreements more visible and to help parents free themselves to think on their own.

There are also SO MANY books and experts out there–giving sometimes the opposite advice–that we parents can easily become confused and overwhelmed if we spend too much time reading them. Trying to follow the advice of even a small sample of the books can be dizzying. Should we cut out all sugar, refuse vaccinations, fill our kids’ lives with charts and stars, or turn them loose on the world to discover how the world works on their own? I have seen parents attempt to follow expert advice like it was a religious text, but more often I’ve seen parents dismiss the experts and simply go with what feels right, which is generally what Mom and Dad did. Parents need, I argue, to put their minds to work, never forgetting the feelings, but making sense of the advice and their reactions to it.

When I had my kids, I was working toward a PhD in developmental psychology, and if there’s one thing I learned, it was that no one agrees with anyone else about anything. If we did, we would not be able to publish endless texts that must continually demonstrate the originality of its authors. Furthermore, I found that theorists were often discussing different behaviors while they argued, seemingly unaware that they were too busy talking (or writing) to hear each other. As parents, I would argue, we have to read what the experts have said, consider the evidence they have, and decide if this impacts our thinking. And yes, it is a lot of work, but parenting is already so much work, putting in a little extra time to test out what you are doing can’t hurt. It might even be a relief to know that there is a reason for approaching a problem or a daily routine in a particular way—something beyond tradition. So this is a place where I begin putting some of this kind of thinking into practice—based on my own experiences as a parent and psychologist but equally because of conversations with students and friends who are also parents. Join the conversation, and let’s think about parenting together.