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Nurturing Empathy in Children

Fostering the development of a caring person is a major goal of many child education programs, including humane education, which helps people treat animals humanely. Unfortunately, there are more unknowns than knowns in the development of empathy. In addition, very little research has been conducted into the development of empathy towards other animals per se. Nonetheless, enough is know to furnish some insight into how empathy develops, and how to help nurture its growth. It is also reasonable to expect that the development of empathy towards other animals follows a similar track to its development towards other people, although research into this is sparse.

The standard course of develop appears to be for infants to be empathic. Young infants will cry and act distressed when other infants cry, possibly indicating that they feel what the other infant feels. It is difficult to say whether this empathy per se because the babies may be responding instinctively or may not fully understand that what happened didn’t happen to themselves. Clearer signs of empathy emerge when a child is about 2 years old. Children at this age can differentiate what happens to others from what happens to themselves, but they still try to comfort others who are hurt largely independently from how much the primary care-giver (in most cultures the mother) interacts with the child, suggesting that this reaction is not learned, but instead develops naturally.

Empathy relies on abstract thought, on cognitively understanding that another is in distress. Therefore, a child’s empathy becomes more sophisticated as he/she comes to understand others. For example, later in the second year, children often understand that what comforts them (e.g., their own mother or father) does not comfort others (who want their own parents instead). Between about 6 and 9 years old, many children are able to think with enough abstraction to understand misfortunes beyound the immediate situation. Around 8 years old, children understand that a person can have conflicting emotions. Helping young children label emotions can help them understand them and see their importance.

As a child grows, not only does empathy become more sophisticated, but empathy also becomes more affected by the outside world. Empathy and sympathy govern relationships with others, so it is not surprising that they are strongly affected by the type and quality of relationships a child has. Early in life, the most important relationship is that with one’s primary care giver. When this relationship is healthy, i.e., when a child gains comfort from the care-giver and has learned enough trust to withstand the care-giver leaving, then empathy, cooperation, social competence, friendliness, and personal resilience can develop (Ainsworth, et al. 1978; Bowlby, 1988; Bryant and Crockenberg, 1980; Yarrow et al., 1973).

Another important component of the care-giver/child relationship is the way morals are enforced and the child disciplined. The optimal strategy appears to combine expressing love and setting reasonable limits (Baumrind, 1971)--mdash;of setting and compassionately enforcing age-appropriate standards of behavior. Neither overly permissive nor overly punitive care-giving instills social responsibility as well. When a child hurts another, psychologist Martin Hoffman and others contend that the most effective way of disciplining a child to help them internalize morals is to bring attention both to the victim’s distress and to the child’s role in causing it. Done correctly, this helps children develop a sense of guilt for hurting others.

Indeed, asking children to develop empathy means to expose them to more suffering. Although we can empathize with an other’s happiness, we also want children to empathize with their pain, and thus not to cause it. To lead children to empathize and then leave them there helpless to it, so to speak, may be counterproductive. The children may simply learn to turn away from other’s sorrow to protect the tender feelings they’ve developed. Therefore, children should also be taught effective ways of helping others out of distress. Learning that they can effectively help others does more than help children endure guilt and vicarious distress; it shows children through their own actions that they are caring, competent individuals. Indeed, children from cultures where they are routinely required to help others are more prosocial that children from cultures in which children aren’t expected to do this (Whiting and Whiting, 1973; 1975).

As children grow into a larger world, more factors influence their empathy and prosocial behaviors. Role models become important (e.g., Elliot and Vasta, 1970; Rushton, 1975), especially successful ones who are close to the child (Eisenberg and Geisheker, 1979). The overall community and it’s norms for treating each other is another powerful influence on young people’s prosocial behavior (Ianni, 1992).

People who are empathic in one situation do tend to be empathic in other situations (my stuff, Elliot and Vasta, 1970). In part, this is probably because how much empathy a person has is genetically influenced (Zahn-Waxler, Robinson, and Emde, 1992). Empathy and the tendency to act prosocially can also generalize, and nurturing empathy in one situation can encourage it in others. For example, Ascione et al (1992, 1996) found that teaching children empathy towards animals can generalize towards humans. However, empathy does not always generalize. Hitler, after all, cared lovingly for his dogs. It seems prudent, then, not to rely on empathy generalizing from where it is found to where one wants it to go: To foster kindness towards animals, it is surely best to work with animals.

Experiences with healthy, reciprocal relationships appear to foster empathy with those others. Therefore, developing this sort of relationship with animals should help develop empathy towards them as it does towards people. Nurturing empathy towards animals is not exactly the same as nurturing it towards people. One barrier that is probably higher in developing empathy towards animals is that people must learn how animals express their emotions--mdash;or even that they have emotions. In addition, cultural differences in the treatment of animals must be respectfully considered and realistic objectives set.

Humane educators have successfully nurtured empathy towards animals by employing the strategies described briefly above. Especially with younger children, humane educators help students understand that animals can feel pleasure, pain, etc.; somewhat older children (e.g., fourth graders) can begin to identify some of the ways animals evince their emotions.

In late elementary on, students can not only benefit from frequent exposure to role models, they can start to be models themselves. Being a role model may even more powerfully foster prosocial behavior than seeing models.

It is not always safe to expect empathy to generalize. In any case, children (and adults) learn best when they learn what they will actually be expected to do. Therefore, empathy and prosociality can flourish during hands-on experiences in which children witness their actions directly benefiting animals in contexts very similar to those in which the children will interact with animals in their daily lives--mdash;such as in parks and as pets.

A model that incorporates several of these components was proffered by scientists Barbara Rogoff, Eugene Matusov, and Cynthia White, (1996) for creating a community of learners. In this model, teachers begin by modeling the target behavior and the students take on progressively more of the task until the teachers are simply overseeing what students do. Note that “teachers” can be knowledgeable students who lead other students under an actual teacher’s supervision.

I Do I Do You Do You Do
You Watch You Help I Help I Watch

Using such a model, students research and plan a service learning project that directly benefits animals in their immediate area. During the entire project, the teacher sets and fairly, compassionately enforces rules of conduct. This example represents one type of ideal that incorporates a large part of what is known to nurture empathy; of course, certain situations dictate different strategies. In all cases, however, integrating a variety of strategies should work better than any one tactic alone.

References and Suggested Reading
Asterisked references are especially suggested readings

Ainsworth, M.D.S., Blehar, M.C., Waters, E., & Wahl, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum.

* Ascione, F. R., Claudia, V., Weber, M. S. (1996). Children’s attitudes about the humane treatment of animals and empathy: One-year follow up of a school-based intervention. Anthrozoös, 9 (4) 188-195

Ascione , F. R. (1992). Enhancing children&’s attitudes about the humane treatment of animals: Generalization to human-directed empathy. Anthrozoös, 5 (3), 176-181

Bar-Tal, D., Nadler, A., & Blechman N. 1980. The relationship between Israeli children&’s helping behavior and their perception on parents&’ socialization practices. Journal of Social Psychology, 111, 159-167.

Baumrind, D. (1971). Current patterns of parental authority. Developmental Psychology Monographs, 4(1).

Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York: Basic Books.

Bryant, B.K. & Crockenberg, S.B. 1980. Correlates and dimensions of prosocial behavior: A study of female siblings with their mothers. Child Development, 51, 529-544.

* Eisenberg, N. (1993). Special report: The socialization and development of empathy and prosocial behavior. East Haddam, CT: The National Association for Humane and Environmental Education.

Eisenberg, N., & Geisheker, E., 1979. Content of preachings and power of the model/preacher: The effect on children&’s generosity. Developmental Psychology, 15, 168-175.

Elliot, R., & Vasta, R. 1970. The modeling of sharing: Effects associated with vicarious reinforcement, symbolization, age, and generalization. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 10, 8-15.

* Hoffman, M. L. (1998). Varieties of empathy-based guilt. In J. Bybee (Ed.), Guilt and Children. San Diego: Academic Press.

Ianni, F. A. J. (1992). Meeting youth needs with community programs. ERIC Digest, Number 86.

* Rogoff. B., Matusov, B., and White, S. (1996). Models of teaching and learning: Participation in a community of learners. In D. Olson & N. Torrance (eds.), The Handbook of Cognition and Human Development. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 388-414.

Rushton, J.P. 1975. Generosity in children: Immediate and long-term effects of modeling, preaching, and moral judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 459-466.

Whiting, B.B., & Whiting, J.W.M. 1975. Children of six cultures: A psychocultural analysis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, Press.

Whiting, J.W.M., & Whiting, B.B., 1973. Altruistic and egotistic behavior in six cultures. In L. Nader & T. Maretzki (eds.), Cultural Illness and Health. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

Yarrow, M.R., Scott, P.M., & Waxler, C.Z., 1973. Learning concern for others. Developmental Psychology, 8, 240-260.

Zahn-Waxler, C., Robinson, J. L., and Emde, N. E. (1992). The development of empathy in twins. Developmental Psychology, 28, 1038-1047.