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Empathy: Innate or Learned?

By July 15, 2019 August 8th, 2019 noggin blog

A few years ago I attended a professional development seminar with early childhood educators from around the world. The conference began with the usual words of welcome and general announcements and then the room darkened and a short video, without introduction, began to play on a large screen. The participants watched as a group of what looked to be three year olds were filmed walking outside toward an unknown destination. We collectively smiled as the familiar sounds of young children preferring journey over destination filled the auditorium. The camera then pans to a boy and girl trailing slightly behind the group. The pair walks hand in hand, chatting happily together. At one point the camera zooms in and we see that the girl has braces on her legs, limiting her ability to keep up with the rest of the class. But, undeterred, she makes her way down the path, with the boy patiently matching his pace to hers the entire time. At one point they come to a break in the sidewalk where a tree root has pushed through the cement. The two stop and simultaneously look down at the unexpected obstacle. The child with limited mobility decides to go first. She raises one foot and sets it tentatively on the uneven portion of the sidewalk. Her friend mirrors her movement exactly, putting one of his feet on the cracked slab but not going any further. As she removes hers so does he. And while it is clear that the boy could easily step over the exposed root, he never moves one inch ahead of his partner. Finally after watching and mimicking her through several attempts, he drops her hand and I remember thinking to myself that he must have reached his frustration level and will now run ahead. Instead, he wordlessly walks around to the other side of the slab, reaches out for the girl’s hands, and gently helps her climb over the raised portion of the sidewalk. The two friends are then seen slowly but surely making their way to the rest of the group. I’m sure the leader of the conference spoke after the video was over but it was hard to hear him over the sound of 500 educators audibly sobbing. 

With no adult interference or guidance, this little boy was the living embodiment of empathy – that is, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and respond accordingly. So how did this amazing display of empathy come to be? Was he born with a natural ability to understand the needs of others? Or had he somehow been taught this skill? And if so, how? 

As early emotional intelligence becomes more widely recognized as a marker for success later in life, social scientists have become very interested in the timeline of its development. And the research surrounding empathy and young children is fascinating. Infants have been shown to cry more to the sound of other babies crying than to equally loud sounds, even recordings of their own crying. Slightly older babies who witnessed their mothers pretending to hurt themselves displayed genuine empathy in emotional and cognitive ways. These non-verbal, non-mobile babies registered concern and distress on their faces. They looked from the injured body part to their mother’s faces and back. Many made cooing or sympathetic sounds. In another revolutionary experiment conducted at The Yale University Infant Cognition Center, babies were shown an animation of a shape trying to climb a hill. One shape would come along and help the climber while another hindered his ability to traverse the hill. The infants overwhelmingly preferred the helper shape. (I wonder what these babies would have thought of the video from the conference.) Apparently the researchers were so astounded by their findings, they themselves did not even fully trust the results. They immediately created other experiments, this time with plush animal puppets helping and hurting each other. The babies were given the chance to reach for the puppets and almost every single one chose the helper puppet. Even babies as young as three months old who couldn’t reach out to grab the puppets consistently directed and held their gaze toward the helper animal. When slightly older children are involved in these studies, they actually step into the role of helpers themselves. Toddlers will rush over to comfort a parent who is hurt, show distress when another child’s artwork is shredded, and even share their prize with the losing child in a game. All of this would seem to suggest that we as humans are born with, at the very least, a capacity to be empathetic.   

And yet any parent actually living with one of these subjects outside the controlled environment of the lab might beg to differ. We have all, at one point or another, been forced to navigate our way through the awkwardness of a playdate where our child refuses to share any of his toys that day or watched in abject horror as our kid, upon seeing another child crying on the playground, inexplicably decides to shove the already distraught toddler. The thing is, gentle expressions of kindness and compassion are often eclipsed by the more dramatic tantrums and conflicts and histrionics of everyday life with a toddler. We are so busy telling our children to SHARE! SHARE! SHARE! and lecturing them about “not hitting our friends” that we often miss the beautiful albeit more subtle moments of care and concern for others. In turn, we come to believe that children need to be taught empathy from a starting point of zero the way we would introduce a completely unfamiliar skill, like origami or quantum physics. But children rarely have a starting point of zero in anything they do. Instead, they come into the world hard-wired to care about other people. And this natural capacity for empathy must be continuously nurtured and gently brought to life starting from a very young age.   

Perhaps somewhat counter intuitively, a child’s ability to act empathically starts first and foremost with a solid sense of self. Strong attachments during infancy lay the groundwork for children to learn how to comfort themselves as well as others. Parents and educators can further facilitate this process by helping children recognize, name, and express their feelings. We also have to be good role models of empathy by acknowledging and validating our children’s emotions; showing understanding and sympathy even when their sorrow might seem unwarranted to us. “I know you really wanted the red spoon. I’m sorry that we only have the blue spoon today.” Empathy, in essence, comes from being empathized with. As children get older it is our job to help them make the connection between one person’s actions and another person’s feelings. Books, TV shows, and make-believe play are ripe with opportunity to discuss these ideas. I am also a big proponent of bringing children even as young as four and five to volunteer opportunities that specifically involve helping others. My own children have visited with nursing home residents and delivered holiday packages to underprivileged children. In each of these instances I try to stay away from the “poor them/lucky us” narrative and instead focus on inherent similarities. “Look Nadav, he loves Spider-Man just as much as you!”   

The most important thing to remember is that our children don’t need to be empathetic all the time to be empathetic people. We are, all of us, entitled to moments of selfishness and self-absorption. And even when their lack of compassion leaves you shaking your head in frustration or disappointment – like the time my three year old laughed hysterically when I bumped my head, hard, on the corner of a cabinet door – try to look through the mess (and the pain) for lessons that can grow them. And whatever you do, don’t take these empathy shortages personally. The road to fully formed, emotionally evolved human is long and winding with plenty of time to get there. (Note to self: take own advice.)  

Over the years I have often found myself thinking back to the image of that little boy helping his friend traverse the rocky path. No doubt a teenager by now, I wonder where he, whether he’s retained the deep capacity for “seeing the other” on display in the video. I hope he’s been surrounded by adults who nurtured that in him, who encouraged him to keep pouring good into the world. I can only imagine where this kind of support has taken him. 

Rachel F.

Mom of Two

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