Yes, I’ve been thinking about empathy lately…and it seems the rest of the world has been too, judging by my survey on Google. People praise  even the very young for their empathic behavior and are critical of those  who do not seem to have a clue about others.

As I watch my grandchildren, they each have varying abilities in this department…but then they are widespread in age. I am full of questions. Is it possible to have no ability to empathize? Can one learn empathy? How could one teach empathy? (We can’t expect schools to do everything after all) Is empathy the reverse of ego? I would want healthy egos for my grandchildren after all. But “me first” is not a pleasant quality. How much does it change as one grows? Are there ethnic factors involved? How do other countries approach this theme? Is empathy correlated with self esteem, self control and aggression?

I am only making a dent in my reading. It seems parenting, and hence mothers, are always having the finger pointed at them. (And so we can’t say that a child is simply “born that way.”)  Today I was interested in this material by Kathleen Cotton: (I’m not saying I’m on board with all of it.)

School Improvement Research Series
Research You Can Use
Close-Up #13
Developing Empathy in Children and Youth
Researchers have identified relationships between the use of certain parental childrearing practices and the development of empathetic feelings, understanding, and social behavior in children:
MOTHERS whose behavior toward their preschool children is RESPONSIVE, NONPUNITIVE, AND NONAUTHORITARIAN have children who have higher levels of affective and cognitive empathy and prosocial behavior (Eisenberg, Lennon, and Roth1983; EisenbergBerg and Mussen 1978; Kestenbaum, Farber, and Sroufe1989; and Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, and King 1979).
REASONING WITH CHILDREN, even quite small ones, about the effects of their behavior on others and the importance of sharing and being kind is effective in promoting empathy and prosocial behavior (Clarke 1984; Kohn 1991; Ladd, Lange, and Stremmel 1983; and Zahn-Waxler, RadkeYarrow, and King 1979).
toward children– and toward others in the children’s presence–is strongly related to children’s development of prosocial attitudes and behavior (Eisenberg-Berg and Mussen 1978; Kohn 1991; McDevitt, Lennon, and Kopriva 1991; and Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, and King 1979).
WHEN CHILDREN HAVE HURT OTHERS or otherwise caused them distress, research supports the practice of giving explanations as to why the behavior is harmful and suggestions for how to make amends (Kohn 1991; and Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, and King 1979).
THEIR FEELINGS AND PROBLEMS is positively related to the development of empathy inthose children (Clarke 1984).
Researchers have also identified childrearing practices which are NEGATIVELY related to the
development of empathy:
attempt to improve children’s behavior are counterproductive (Clarke 1984; Eisenberg-Berg and Mussen 1978; Kohn 1991; and Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, and King 1979).
INCONSISTENT CARE (e.g., inconsistency in parents’reactions to children’s emotional
needs) and PARENTAL REJECTION/WITHDRAWAL in times of children’s emotional
needs are both associated with low levels of empathy on the parts of the children
(Kestenbaum, Farber, and Sroufe 1989).
Children from HOMES IN WHICH THEIR FATHERS PHYSICALLY ABUSE THEIR MOTHERS have low levels of empathy. For example, they are typically unable to recognize the emotional states of other people and respond appropriately (Hinchey and Gavelek 1982).
improve children’s behavior is counterproductive. As with other research on extrinsic rewards, researchers have found that providing payoffs for prosocial behavior focuses attention on the reward rather than the reason for it and that the desired behaviors tend to lessen or disappear when the reward is withdrawn (Kohn 1991)
All fascinating reading…if disturbing for me.
This, combined with my book club read of the month, David Brook’s  The Social Animal, makes me agitated and eager to get out in the garden and nurture plants!
With unequaled insight and brio, New York Times columnist David Brooks has long explored and explained the way we live. Now Brooks turns to the building blocks of human flourishing in a multilayered, profoundly illuminating work grounded in everyday life. This is the story of how success happens, told through the lives of one composite American couple, Harold and Erica. Drawing on a wealth of current research from numerous disciplines, Brooks takes Harold and Erica from infancy to old age, illustrating a fundamental new understanding of human nature along the way: The unconscious mind, it turns out, is not a dark, vestigial place, but a creative one, where most of the brain’s work gets done. This is the realm where character is formed and where our most important life decisions are made—the natural habitat of The Social Animal. Brooks reveals the deeply social aspect of our minds and exposes the bias in modern culture that overemphasizes rationalism, individualism, and IQ. He demolishes conventional definitions of success and looks toward a culture based on trust and humility. The Social Animal is a moving intellectual adventure, a story of achievement and a defense of progress. It is an essential book for our time—one that will have broad social impact and will change the way we see ourselves and the world.
The back cover is quite hopeful though, and that is where I choose to stop for now!
…”It’s possible to tell this story now because over the past thirty years, an array of researchers have peered into the inner mind. I’ve woven  their findings into the lives of two characters – Erica and Harold. Through their story you’ll come away with a new perspective on who you are, on how we raise our kids, conduct business, teach, love, and practice politics.
We’re not rational animals or laboring animals; we’re social animals. We emerge out of relationships and live to bond with one another and connect to large ideas.

About fromourisland

Gardener, knitter, wife, mother of 2, grandmother, and lots more.
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