As I suggested in my previous posts Empathy for Children and Empathy for Children 2, it would be nice if adults felt more accurate empathy for young people. We may never achieve the ideal of empathy that is completely accurate, but we should certainly try to avoid its opposite: empathy that is completely inaccurate. What are the obstacles to achieving the ideal, and are there limitations to the benefits that result even when empathy is completely accurate? In this post I will suggest some reasonable ways to overcome the obstacles and limitations of empathy for children.
Accurate empathy for children may be an innate talent in some individuals, a natural gift, and hence not a moral issue. But when the capacity for empathy is voluntarily cultivated to foster prosocial behavior, and the skill thus cultivated is used for benevolent purposes, then those choices are certainly virtuous and deserving of praise. Conversely, the choice to not bother cultivating accurate empathy for children, in any adult who may have any interaction with young people, is clearly irresponsible and blameworthy.
Although empathic understanding is sometimes achieved by imagining yourself in the other person’s shoes, accurate empathy requires the recognition that other individuals are “separate beings with independent inner states (feelings, thoughts, perceptions)…and with separate identities and life conditions” (1).
When we accurately perceive a child’s positive or negative mood or emotion, we are in a position to respond appropriately. A failure in empathy often takes the form of being unable to accurately perceive a child’s inner state. Some adults may have no idea what a child is feeling at a given moment, or they may mistakenly assume the child feels quite differently from how the child actually feels.
It is also a common mistake to assume that children’s feelings and desires are permanent or long-lasting as is more typical in some adults, when in reality children’s feelings and desires may change rather quickly. A child’s mood or emotion may quickly change from positive to negative, or from negative to positive, sometimes depending precisely on adults’ increasing sensitivity or stubborn insensitivity.
An adult should ask a child for validation of the adult’s tentative interpretation, humbly pointing out that the adult isn’t God and cannot read the child’s mind. Adults should communicate that we try to understand children but to be perfectly honest we may be mistaken sometimes. In some cases the child should also be asked what response (if any) the child wants, or which response (among explicit alternatives) the child would prefer.
Such a request for validation obviously entails that a child has been informed about how to identify and label emotions. A careful and responsible adult expresses appropriate concern, as well as other prosocial behavior and moral conduct when needed. If an adult fails to accurately perceive a child’s feelings and desires, the adult’s concern may be inappropriate and result in an inadequate, harmful or immoral response. An adult who behaves as a dictator is not empathetic.
An example of inaccurate empathy is the belief one parent/author expressed, that “99% of ten-year-olds have never experienced an inkling of sexual desire” (2). Not only is there no evidence to support that belief, there is considerable evidence against it. Most parents go through a lot of effort (modeling shame or threatening punishment) to “inhibit” their very young children’s desire to fondle themselves, look at or touch other people’s genital organs, and learn about how babies are made (preferably by watching the act if possible). In at least one survey asking children what subjects they would like to study at school, the pupils put sex education at the top of the list.
Honesty requires an admission that at a very early age (preschool) many children today are mentally castrated by their parents and other misguided teachers, so what children express publicly later is probably very far from what they would express (e.g. What is the most effective way to orgasm?) if they felt uncensored.
Some research has found that empathy is subject to bias: people tend to express more concern toward others who are considered members of their own group. A less generous label for that tendency is: tribalism. Note that such findings indicate the way people are in the West today, and not necessarily how people must always be everywhere and in every historical period.
An extreme analogy of bias is chimpanzee behavior, in which every troop has an alpha male that tries to sexually monopolize as many females as possible (not very successfully), and will kill any offspring he suspects aren’t his. That is not the best system for the troop; it may not even be the best system for the alpha male. It is a complete rejection of the social value of empathy. Although such behavior seems unthinkable to civilized humans, it is actually a natural extension of the bias modern Western fathers and mothers practice toward children.
Some parents tend to view their children as extensions of themselves, and hence are more likely to be motivated by what they believe are their children’s best interests. But what some parents call their child’s best interests are actually the parent’s personal and political preferences, regardless of how the parent’s preferences may contradict the child’s desires. In reality, accurate empathy toward children requires the recognition that children are NOT extensions of their parents. Children are unique individuals different from their parents genetically and environmentally. What parents believe are an individual child’s best interests may be dead wrong.
My father was a carpenter, and the most glamorous people he met were architects. So he wanted me to become an architect. But I had no interest in architecture. In high school I took a trial course in drafting and it was the most boring subject in the world to me. My father’s incomprehension of my individuality caused him to withhold support for what interested me, and he eventually disinherited me. He was not a very empathetic parent. Accurate empathy requires a recognition that children are unique individuals, not copies of their parents.
Ironically, one obvious way to reduce the bias of relatedness is to promote promiscuity. In the bonobos, every male in a troop mates with every female, so no male knows which offspring are his. As a result infanticide is unknown, and bonobo males are not aggressive toward any of the young. (Bonobo females do know which offspring are theirs, and are biased toward those offspring.) Such universal promiscuity might be a long way from becoming acceptable in the modern West, but we can imagine an even more effective alternative.
In humans, although there are some advantages to home birth, hospital births provide the opportunity to deliberately switch some babies, so that even mothers could not be sure which baby is “theirs.” In practice such a policy might be an impossible dream, but it is instructive to consider the reasons.
Many parents would object to baby-switching because traditionally children are treated as a form of private property, and ownership implies the right to exclusive possession and use. A related objection is that parents are more likely to provide responsible care for what they view as their own property than for unrelated children (somebody else’s “property”).
As I have pointed out previously, the primitive obsession with genetic relatedness, “blood kin,” is merely an evolutionary tendency, not some noble moral precept (see Attraction and Arousal). The objections based on the idea that children are a form of property assume that since people are naturally selfish in most ways, their selfishness must necessarily extend to children as well.
However, the widely acknowledged “cuteness factor” suggests that many adults (certainly not all) are naturally unselfish when it comes to young children and especially babies. Some obvious evidence is the existence of very dedicated adoptive parents, as well as some very dedicated teachers and other unrelated caregivers. Most known infanticide in our own species is practiced by the parents against their own biological offspring, not competitor’s offspring (3).
A possible refutation of objections to baby-switching would be for some enlightened parents to voluntarily choose to participate in a baby-switching experiment. A list of such parents and their portraits could be shown to the participants, and after consent only some of the babies could be switched, without the parents knowing which babies are biological and which are adoptive. The babies’ true biological relations could be confidentially registered for possible medical or scientific value later.
I believe that such an experiment would indicate that love for children is naturally instinctive in some sense in at least some individuals. Conversely, a comparison with a control group might reveal that adults who refuse to raise anyone else’s offspring are probably not the best candidates to become parents anyway. I’m talking about the kind of adult who claims that any love for children not based on property rights or pride of ownership is “perverted,” the confused adult who is so intensely focused on a strange man speaking to her son that she has no idea she’s about to sit on the child’s head.
One limitation of empathy is that some research suggests it is a weak motivator compared to anger or guilt. That doesn’t mean empathy is insignificant or that anger and guilt should be cultivated. Not only do the negative emotions of anger and guilt carry the risk of potentially deadly side-effects, but I believe that the tendency of such negative emotions to interfere with perception and clear judgment cancel their advantage as powerful motivators.
Empathy’s power to motivate can be cultivated at an early age through instruction by modeling. I’m talking about accurate empathy, which in the case of adults and children entails humility and an explicit attempt to obtain validation of accuracy through uncensored feedback.
Although empathy is usually considered something we feel for another person who needs help, and hence something that may involve a cost to the person who empathizes (provides help), a broader view includes vicarious pleasure as involving the same mental process (4). Healthy children are capable of intense pleasure and exuberant happiness; if adults cultivate a capacity to empathize not only with children’s pain but also with children’s pleasure, then adults can better appreciate the personal value of empathizing with children even for adults.
Empathy is not a panacea, since a biased presentation of information can be used to manipulate and deceive naïve observers and consumers (5). Yes, I’m pointing my finger at profiteers in the sex abuse rescue business (see my review of The Courage to Heal). But accurate empathy has undeniable social value, since it is often instrumental to prosocial and benevolent conduct. Accurate empathy should be considered absolutely essential in certain situations, such as whenever adults have any kind of interaction with children.
- Hoffman, Martin J. Empathy, Justice, and the Law. in Coplan, Amy, and Goldie, Peter (Eds.) Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford, 2011.
- Maxwell, Sharon. The Talk: What Your Kids Need to Hear From You About Sex. Avery Trade, 2008.
- Hrdy, Sara Blaffer. Mother Nature: How Maternal Instincts Shape the Human Species. Ballantine Books, 2000.
- Feagin, Susan L. Empathizing as Simulating. In Copal and Goldie (Eds.) op cit.
- Rind, Bruce et al. “A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples” (Psychological Bulletin 1998, Vol. 124, No. 1, 22-53); and Rind et al. “The Validity and Appropriateness of Methods, Analyses, and Conclusions in Rind et al. (1998): A Rebuttal of Victimological Critique From Ondersma et al. (2001) and Dallam et al. (2001)” (Psychological Bulletin 2001. Vol. 127. No. 6. 734-758).
Note: There have now been 25,000 views of my blog posts (20 in three years), which is an average of 1,250 views per post, but in reality my two most popular posts (Breast Shame and Clitoral Erectile Dysfunction) have received more views than all the other posts combined. That’s not a lot compared to some more popular blogs, but it is significant. To celebrate I’m now offering a free full-length novel in eBook form. Send me an email requesting “Revolt of the Children” to receive the download link. email@example.com