Friday, May 6, 2011

Fostering Empathy From the Start

Did you know that the more love and affection a person receives as a baby the more empathic they will be as an adult. Babies who are held frequently and whose cries are answered quickly became more caring people in later years. So say the findings of Notre Dame psychology professor Darcia Narvaez, in a group of studies she conducted on fostering empathy.

The higher parents were in "responsivity"-- responding to their baby’s needs and subtle nuances – the higher their babies were in moral development and in being attuned to the feelings of others. Says Narvaez, "Responsitivity is clearly linked with moral development. It helps foster an agreeable personality, early conscience development and greater prosocial behavior." So does disciplining with love, as opposed to disciplining in a punitive way.

Clearly, we must start early when it comes to raising empathic children. With bullying so prevalent, this is critical. Maia Szalavitz, co-author of Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential — And Endangered, says, “Empathy is an innate capacity in most humans but it relies on certain environmental triggers in order to develop properly.” Parents are the most important “environmental trigger” at any age. Kids not only need to see their parents showing care for others, they need to feel the care and affection of their parents from the time they are born. “If a child doesn’t receive enough nurture early in life, she’s not going to learn to take pleasure in connecting to other people,” says Szalavitz, “and therefore she won’t share others’ pain, either.”

The ability to share the pain of others is often what stops a child from bullying. So, if we want to see less bullying, more kindness, we have to start when kids are young and continue as they grow.

Here are four things parents can do to start fostering empathy when their kids are babies:
  • Answer their cries. Don't make them wait.
  • Talk to them, smile at them, and make lots of eye contact.
  • Cuddle them as often as you can. The more time in your arms, the better.
  • Notice the subtle signals of their needs, and respond as quickly as you can. 
Showing lots of love will lead to greater empathy.

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