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This article is part of self-improvement Lesson 4 - ways
to optimize your interpersonal relationships. The article starts with an
Time magazine report on how people develop empathy. The rest of this
article extends that report to propose....
the difference between empathy and sympathy;
key implications of being unable to empathize
with other people;
a way to assess how empathic you are;
requisites for developing empathy;
practical options for increasing your empathy,
how lack of parental wholistic health and
empathy can promote an inability to feel, empathize, and love in young
This article assumes you're familiar with:
intro to this nonprofit Web site and the
premises underlying it;
This reprint offers a credible answer. The highlights are mine.
How Not to Raise a Bully:
The Early Roots of Empathy
By Maia Szalavitz
Time magazine, via Yahoo news - 4/17/2010
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
neglect 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 attachment 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 empathic 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
dignity 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).
Notice where your mind goes now - what are you aware of?
Before examining key implications of the article above, reflect: can you
difference between sympathy and empathy?
If you haven't experienced something similar to what another person has, you
may be able to sympathize (intellectually understand) them somewhat. If you
have had a similar experience, you may be able to empathize
(understand + feel) the other person's experience.For example: no matter how
sensitive men and childless women are, they cannot fully empathize with a
new mother's experience of pregnancy and childbirth the way another mother
Ms. Salavitz's article above proposes that...
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 and teach.
parents and teachers who proactively teach
young kids how to identify and understand their - and other people's -
feelings in various situations help kids develop empathy, and...
young children traumatized by adult 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
is apt to
pass down the generations and weaken
related implication is that
effective parents need to be
aware of (a) young kids' developmental needs; and of (b) how
their own behavior (like empathy and respect) is affecting their kids
article above doesn't mention the equal importance of helping young kids to develop
self awareness, self and mutual
respect, and non-egotistical personal
without self-respect and self-love can mute or distort genuine altruism and
These research findings suggest the high need for teachers and coaches to be
(a) self-aware; (b) educated
on "the roots of empathy," and (c) motivated to help students develop it. The
findings also suggests the value of teaching family and school counselors,
social workers, daycare and church-school staffs, family-life educators,
coaches, and pediatricians about empathy-development.
The article above helps to explain why most
low-nurturance childhoods have difficulty communicating and solving relationship problems
effectively. The core of effective communication is personal
and social awareness, which is needed to sustain two-person
Premise - early-childhood trauma causes psychological wounds, including
being unable to feel, love, empathize, and
bond appropriately with other people. So a final implication of these research findings is that
may think they're empathic, but don't know what genuine empathy feels
like. So they feel "normal," and are unlikely to (a) admit or seek help
for this crippling deficit, or to (b) teach and model true empathy for their
Note that without genuine empathy, compassion and altruism are
These implications suggest important questions for you - specially if
you care for young kids:
How empathic were each of the adults who raised me
(low > high)?
How empathic am I?
How empathic is (or was) my partner?
Are my kids' adults modeling and teaching empathy
Is lack of awareness and empathy causing me any
significant relationship problems? If so, what are they, and what do
I need to do now?
Can empathy be intentionally developed?
Empathy and Interpersonal Bonding
One of six psychological wounds that can result from major
early-childhood neglect, abandonment, and abuse ("trauma") is an
inability to feel, bond, and exchange real
with other people. It's likely that
acquire this wound if (a) they have the other five, and (b) their
caregiving adults were unable to model genuine empathy and teach it to
Society and the media are generally unaware of this parental deficit.
They (we) call unempathic people insensitive, uncaring, cold,
aloof, antisocial, phony, "emotionally unavailable," self-centered,
Narcissistic, selfish, egotistical, sociopaths, and psychopaths.
These are undeserved shaming labels. Better labels are "wounded"
and "unaware." Psychologically-wounded people merit compassion
(which requires empathy), not criticism and scorn!
It's possible (or probable?) that mental-health conditions like
"Reactive Attachment Disorder" (RAD) and "Asperger's Syndrome" are
symptoms of psychologically-wounded and unempathic early-childhood
caregivers. If so, these conditions deserve informed family, not
Do you know anyone who is unable
to fee, bond, and love?. If so, consider referring them to this
in this nonprofit Web site.
Truly empathic people exhibit notable behaviors and traits. How many of
these typical traits would people who know you say you have?. If you have
wounds, you may sincerely believe you have
these traits but you really don't
Don't check a trait unless you can check all subtraits. If you're not sure
of a trait, use "?". Options - (1) ask trusted people who know you to
verify your answers here' (2) Use this checklist to evaluate the empathy of
__ I'm very clear now on the difference
between empathy and sympathy.
__ Each of the adults who raised
me _ consistently demonstrated empathy, and _ taught me how to recognize and
name human emotions.
__ I'm able to _ feel the full range of human emotions. _ I rarely say "I don't know
what I feel now."
__ On a "personal
of 1 (very unaware) to 10 (very aware), I rate myself recently as a ___.
__ I'm _ aware of typical
primary human needs, and _ I'm usually able to accurately sense what other people need now and
__ I can usually maintain my
boundaries around significantly-emotional kids and adults.
__ I see all emotions as
natural and useful, not "positive" or "negative."
__ I respect the human dignity of
every person, regardless of their age, gender, opinions, role/s, and
__ I normally see "difficult"
self-centered, dishonest, manipulative, aggressive, scared, 'obnoxious,'
people as "psychologically-wounded and unaware," rather than "bad." (That
doesn't mean I approve of their behaviors).