Modeling Empathy

March 10, 2014 at 7:59 pm

Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Back in 2010, a study of nearly 14,000 American college students indicated that “college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than those of 30 years ago, with the numbers plunging primarily after 2000″ (Source). I started college in 1999, so this downward trend began in my generation. What can we expect to be the consequences of this lack of empathy? “Low empathy is associated with criminal behavior, violence, sexual offenses, aggression when drunk and other antisocial behaviors” (Source). Not a pretty sight. This probably helps explain why I rarely watch/read the news anymore. So can we halt this trend toward empathy-lack?

As a first-time mom, a friend of mine invited me to attend an event for moms and kids. I don’t remember much about it. I think we rotated through different rooms with a variety of crafts and games and activities. The one thing that has stuck with me (after ten years) was a presentation about the importance of empathy. The woman encouraged us to respond to our children’s distress or tantrums first with empathy. She explained that we all have an innate need to feel understood, including and especially children. She encouraged us, when our children would cry about something upsetting to them, to acknowledging their big feelings, speak aloud our understanding of why they would be upset, match their tone of voice and facial expression and then gradually bring it down to a calmer one. For whatever reason, this advice about empathy felt profound and life-changing, and it sunk deep into my heart and mind.

450233014514972_a-2d588fe4_pTAeUw_pmAs I found my groove as a mom and settled into my own style of mothering, I tried to pay attention to my heart. I had a hunch that the way I treated my daughter as an infant would be the way she would treat me (and others) later on. I felt, in some part of my soul, that she was learning how to respond to others with love as I responded to her cries with love. Time and research have validated my first-time-mom hunches.

Lawrence Kutner, clinical psychologist and director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media, explains that empathy is a skill that children learn. It is not something we are born with. “The best teachers of that skill are the children’s parents. . . . [and] the best training for empathy begins in infancy” (Source). In echo, Maia Szalavitz, author of Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential–And Endangered, explains: “Babies whose needs for touch, comfort and soothing are not met regularly by one or two primary caregivers will have difficulty developing empathy—just as babies who aren’t exposed to speech will not be able to learn to speak” (Source). She confirms this concept in another article: “Babies who are not held and nuzzled and hugged enough will literally stop growing . . . . Some cross-cultural research suggests that cultures which lavish more affection on infants and children are less violent and less prone to crime. So, if you want empathetic children–and an empathetic culture–touch and be touched” (Source). I would add, if you want empathetic children, babywearing is an excellent place to start.

Empathy modeling continues beyond infancy as parents respond to toddler tantrums. Dr. Margot Sunderland, director of education and training at the Centre for Child Mental Health in London and author of The Science of Parenting, has given excellent advice for handling tantrums. It requires distinguishing whether your child is throwing a “distress tantrum” or a “Little Nero” tantrum.

Distress tantrums mean that rage, fear, and/or separation distress have sent “too-high levels of stress chemicals searing through [your child’s] body and brain” (p. 122). These stress chemicals “hijack” your child’s ability to think or reason or communicate effectively. Children in distress tantrums need help managing their big feelings. Sunderland encourages parents to remember that their child’s distress is genuine and focus on giving physical comfort, emotional empathy, and safety.

Little Nero tantrums are another story. These tantrums are about control and manipulation and rarely involve tears. Sunderland explains, “A Little Nero tantrum is about a child trying to get what he wants–attention, a particular toy, or food–through bullying his parents into submission. . . . Children who have Little Nero tantrums need to learn that they can’t always receive the gratification they want at the time they want it, and that it’s not OK to bully or control people to get what they want in life” (p.128). Sunderland encourages parents to avoid trying to reason, argue, or negotiate with the child, remain emotionally calm, and be firm in saying, “No.”

I think Dr. Sunderland has hit upon a major contributor to empathy-lack in our culture. Perhaps too many infants and toddlers are not being given empathy when they are genuinely in distress, and too many older children are being indulged when they are bullying their parents. No parents are perfect, but I definitely feel motivated to do my best to improve and to respond more appropriately to my younger kids’ tantrums.

I spent a lot of time giving myself pep-talks as a first-time mom. When my grandmother or others questioned my parenting choices (holding my baby “too much” and picking her up quickly when she cried both day and night, etc.), I would smile and continue doing what felt right to me, mentally reaffirming what my heart told me: you can’t spoil a baby with too much love and affection.

That baby is now ten-and-a-half years old. Over and over again, she has validated the hunch I had as a first-time mom: that the way I treated her as an infant would be the way she would treat me (and others) later on. She is a remarkable young lady who treats everyone with kindness. When I’m having a hard day, she has a knack for getting me to smile. My second daughter (now eight-years-old) is even more empathetic than her older sister–she weeps when others weep, she feels pain when others feel pain. She is the first to offer a hug or words of encouragement if I’m visibly distressed. We have yet to traverse the teenager terrain, so I don’t know if their kindness will hold-up under that strain. I hold out hope that the foundation of respect and love we established in their infancy will keep our relationships afloat through adolescence. It’s possible my daughters would have been remarkable young ladies regardless of how they were mothered, but I believe my efforts to offer them empathy made a difference.

I believe we can stem the tide of empathy-lack, but it won’t happen without mothers understanding the crucial role they play. Mothers are the first and most effective teachers of empathy. Peace on earth begins at birth, with empathy for newborns and infants, and mothers (and fathers) are the key.

196558_10150208470791900_3258391_nInfancy’s the tender fountain,
Power may with beauty flow,
Mothers first to guide the streamlets,
From them souls unresting grow—
Grow on for the good or evil,
Sunshine streamed or evil hurled,
For the hand that rocks the cradle
Is the hand that rules the world.

-William Ross Wallace

More Information and Resources:

Roots of Empathy (program for schools)
How Children Develop Empathy
The Joy of Empathy: Why It Matters & How to Teach It to Your Kids
The End of Empathy?
A Call to Men
In Their Hands (an editorial by Peggy O’Mara that had a huge impact on me as a first-time mom)