Empathy, babies, and other awesome stuff

A kind moment (Moscow) © Natalia Martinez

Bullying has been on the news a plenty over the past couple of months. Amid the bad news and many positive responses, this several-weeks-old NYT article entitled “Fighting Bullying With Babies” resounded with me because (a) it is a novel approach, (b) it is focused on prevention, not punishment, (c) it deals with babies, and (d) it is rooted in both psychology and biology.

It is an interesting article so I recommend it for a quick read, but the basis idea breaks down something like this: In response to bullying, society usually falls back to punishment in hopes of deterrence, which doesn’t work in most contexts (my own aside: and yet we keep doing it, despite overwhelming evidence of its inability to solve the problem at hand, same as we continue teaching the D.A.R.E curriculum even though research has shown its ineffective). However, a growing amount of research is showing a couple of enthralling and optimism-inducing finding: first, there is a biological basis for human compassion, not just aggression or selfishness and second, empathy can’t be taught, but it can be caught and spread. Dorky Psych aside: as much as the ‘contagion effect‘ can be detrimental at times, it can also be awesome!

The article writes about a Toronto organization called Roots of Empathy, which has tremendous success in changing classroom attitudes and bullying by essentially turning a baby into a class pet (I mean this in the best possible way). The program brings in a parent with a baby into a classroom for visits during the school year, using the baby to teach the children a variety of wonderful lessons while they sit as captive audiences, obviously enthralled by the baby in the room. The children learn to take the baby’s perspective, then the parent’s, to empathize with both, to marvel at how quickly human capacity develops, to discover that even babies have different personalities, etc. It turns out that being around a baby changes something biological for the kids, and “tough kids smile, disruptive kids focus, shy kids open up.

Here is a quote to serve as synopsis/example: “To parent well, you must try to imagine what your baby is experiencing. So the kids do a lot of “perspective taking […]When the baby is too small to raise its own head, for example, the instructor asks the children to lay their heads on the blanket and look around from there. Perspective taking is the cognitive dimension of empathy – and like any skill it takes practice to master. (Cable news hosts, take note.)”

And now to the awesome fact-based turn-around: “The results can be dramatic. In a study of first- to third-grade classrooms, Schonert-Reichl focused on the subset of kids who exhibited “proactive aggression” – the deliberate and cold-blooded aggression of bullies who prey on vulnerable kids. Of those who participated in the Roots program, 88 percent decreased this form of behavior over the school year, while in the control group, only 9 percent did, and many actually increased it. Schonert-Reichl has reproduced these findings with fourth to seventh grade children in a randomized controlled trial. She also found that Roots produced significant drops in “relational aggression” – things like gossiping, excluding others, and backstabbing.”

For a program that costs only hundreds of dollars per child, the cost-benefit of preventing later problems that cost thousands of dollars per child, is obvious,” says the article. On this note, I take a slightly different approach: now that we are conducting research on empathy, altruism and how to engender and cultivate them in our children, I think this is a powerful tool for parents to take over teaching their children, if they are able to. It is great to institute such a program in schools, but the burden of responsibility should lie families.

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