Friday, June 19, 2015
Kid Considerations: Empathy
It Begins With the Children
I should be working on other things today. But, after another senseless shooting, this one blatantly motivated by the toxic combination of racism, misplaced masculinity, guns, and violence, I find that I cannot reconcile the dissonance in my soul, and I am compelled to return again and again to this simple question: what happened when this killer was a child?
The complexity of racism, bigotry, hatred, and violence cannot be diluted to a single cause, but I think we can examine critical points of development for young children that have clearly failed to foster what I believe to be, perhaps, the most crucial element in growing adults who turn away from that racism, bigotry, hatred, and violence that has been so deeply embedded in our culture for so long. That element is empathy.
For the last couple of months, I have been working on creating a new training topic for early childhood professionals: spirituality, morality, and ethics in the daily lives of young children. Developmental psychology and educational theory has, for a very long time, resisted or rejected the notion that very young children are capable of the thought processes often deemed necessary for purposeful and meaningful spiritual experiences, or for being able to think morally and act ethically. Fortunately, there are a growing number of educators, theorists, researchers, and parents who feel differently. As explained by psychologist and professor Tobin Hart in his book The Secret Spiritual World of Children (2003):
“These researchers have generally concluded that children do not and cannot have a spiritual life prior to the development of formal reasoning, usually sometime in adolescence […] When we look a little closer, we can find grand exceptions to Piaget’s model. Even young children have shown a capacity for thoughtful consideration of big questions (metaphysics), inquiring about proof and the source of knowledge (epistemology), reasoning through problems (logic), and reflecting on their own identity in the world.” (Hart, pgs.4 & 92)
As I have reflected on the individuals gunned down in Charleston, and the young man who enacted this terrorism, joining the growing ranks of young, most often white, and almost always male perpetrators of mass shootings, I keep returning to my original question, and that answer: empathy.
As young children develop as social-emotional beings, it is important that we recognize and foster their ability to connect with the feelings of others in active, prosocial ways. Again, young children regularly demonstrate this capacity, but adults often fail to recognize it as such:
“More recent research shows that toddlers between 18 and 22 months display empathy as measured by orienting themselves to the sound of distress, visually checking what is happening, showing emotional arousal (such as appropriate facial expression), and engaging in prosocial activities such as helping, soothing, or sharing” (Ann S. Epstein (2009). Me, You, Us: Social-Emotional Learning in Preschool. pg. 36).
Anyone who works with young children has seen these impulses acted out in myriad small interactions on a daily basis. But “seeing” them is not enough: we must acknowledge them, reinforce them, model them, and build upon the potential embedded within them.
We need to develop a better understanding of the capacity that all children have to experience wonder; to evaluate social interactions for moral and ethical value; to discover their relationship to self, others, and the world; to be empathic, caring individuals; and to grow as spiritual, moral, and ethical actors in their own lives. Young children are not simply empty vessels waiting to be filled—they are fully formed, yet constantly evolving members of a family, a classroom, a community, a nation, and a world. If, as a culture, we continue to fail our children in fostering empathy and connecting it with spirituality (which does not necessarily have to be rooted in a specific religious doctrine or practice) that informs moral beliefs and ethical actions, then we will continue to betray our better natures, and we will continue to mourn the lives taken by those whose hearts and souls are empty. It begins with the children.