Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Can Children Learn Empathy?

(This one outgrew its position in the July 8 Link Log.)

Is it possible to teach empathy to preschoolers? This teacher thinks so. I think the teacher is a nice, kind person, whom some students may remember fondly after they do develop the hormones and neural circuits to feel empathy. I think children who've bonded with a kind, loving, empathetic mother (or other parent-figure) can learn some behavior that looks like empathy, that will feel like empathy whenever the children are able to feel empathy. I don't think children actually feel empathy before puberty. 

Because children are hard-wired to admire, imitate, and try to please parent-figures, they do learn to mimic behavior that's motivated by genuine empathy. If Mommy stops the annoying noise of one baby's whining by cuddling that baby, and if another baby is attached to Mommy and observes that behavior, then, yes, that baby will try to cuddle the other baby when it whines. If Mommy models petting and grooming animals the way the animals like to be petted and groomed, tending plants the way plants thrive on being tended, listening and talking about things other people want to talk about, then, yes, preschoolers will mimic those behaviors too. If Mommy rewards those behaviors, too, or if the other baby and/or pets and/or plants and/or friends do, then those behaviors will come to feel rewarding to those children. But...

My brother and I were considered child prodigies, such that our mother sincerely believed she was teaching us empathy before we'd reached puberty. She had certainly taught us enough empathetic-looking behavior that, to this day, I'm willing to imagine that my brother might have felt some sort of preliminary glimmer of empathy--sometimes. I can say, though, that what I felt was strictly conditioned, child-pleasing-parent pleasure all the way up to puberty. Humans are by nature predators before we're herd-joiners; children feel pleasure in beating other children at things, including physically beating them in fights, long before they feel pleasure in empathy. Thus the child who learns to mimic empathy in some ways will turn around and reveal an utter lack of empathy in other situations. We did, in fact, learn to cuddle babies and change diapers and hold warm bottles over infants' mouths. We learned to warm baby birds in our hands and talk to plants and write sweet little letters to our aunts (whom we did in fact like), like any child whose parents or teachers believe it's showing precocious empathy. We also learned to kick, shove, punch, stomp, pinch, verbally abuse, tattle, and generally deal with the other pre-pubertal monsters at school in a more efficient, and no less cold-blooded, way than Wednesday and Pugsley Addams. I learned to do many kind things more efficiently at a younger age than most children; I was still a mean, even sadistic, preadolescent troll.

I suppose nature intended children to learn both empathetic and hostile behavior, and a case can be made that you have to develop some capacity to feel empathy in order to become really cruel, too. (The terrifying thing about sociopaths is that they do clearly show a capacity for empathy when manipulating people; they just lack, or inhibit, empathy about the results of their schemes. Autistic patients, who don't develop empathy at all, may inadvertently hurt others--usually when fleeing from things their scrambled perceptions make painful to them--but they don't scheme and manipulate.) I'm all in favor of teachers who model and reward kind behavior in the classroom. I'm not in favor of proposals to add empathy, or kindness, or "values," or "touchy feely" to the elementary school or preschool curriculum...because I can say firsthand that, even when children learn kind, gentle, nurturing behaviors, trying to tell them about empathy is as much a waste of time as trying to tell them about romantic love. 

We feel things, whether as "emotions" or as "passions" or as "experiences," by way of hormones and nerves. Most of those hormones and nerves develop as we grow up. Estrogen generally seems to intensify the "feelings" associated with empathetic responses; normal male adults have enough estrogen to feel empathy, which may be why some men seem to feel that women's expressions of empathy are excessive. Children seem to start to feel empathy, within themselves, as distinct from acting out empathetic behavior they've learned, a year or two before puberty. The refined emotional cruelty of middle school "mean girls" is an early development in this process, where the "mean girl" starts to notice what hurts other kids' feelings most before she starts to care how badly she's hurt their feelings. By the time young people start to feel physically attracted to one another, most of them have learned that kindness is attractive...though a few people seem to fail to learn this at any time in life.

Unfortunately many elementary school teachers are adults whose own levels of empathy never rise very high. A chronic problem we have in these United States is that these teachers' clumsy efforts to teach things for which they're not really talented, themselves, creates "mental blocks" that prevent people from learning grammar, music, math, science, or even sports. John Holt wrote three entire books about some of the ways this happens. 


He hardly scraped the surface. And if this approach to teaching were to become the way we expected people to learn empathy, Heaven help us all. 

Mandatory education in overcrowded, industrial-model schools has made many Americans into couch potatoes who, for some reason (such as astigmatism), didn't learn anything from the formal instruction in baseball and basketball we got in elementary school, and therefore concluded that we're "just not good at sports." We as a society can live comfortably with large numbers of people who believe, correctly or not, that they "just can't" hit a home run, shoot a basket, or kick a goal. We can't live so comfortably with similar numbers of people who believe that they "just can't" learn to tell when they are causing others pain.

And if anyone does need help learning to tell when s/he is causing others pain--if that ability does not develop, on schedule, somewhere between the ages of ten and fifteen--that help is very unlikely to come from adults who don't instinctively know why trying to explain the concept of empathy to a large mixed group of randomly chosen reluctant "students" is a stupid idea. It's a stupid idea because it causes pain, that's why. All emotional feelings, along with sexual reactions and spiritual experiences, are in that category of private, personal, subjective experiences that nature did not intend us to try to share with large mixed groups, under any circumstances, but least of all when most of the people in the group don't even want to be in the group. A teacher who blunders onto those topics is causing pain. If the teacher doesn't know that, the teacher is not qualified to teach about empathy.