Part two of my interview with Maia Szalavitz, science blogger for Time.com and co-author, with leading child trauma expert Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD, of Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential -- and Endangered. See part 1, on the economics of empathy and why empathy needs a PR makeover here.
Ada Calhoun: How can we foster empathy in children?
Maia Szalavitz: You can just explicitly encourage perspective-taking, like while reading to them, ask, “What do you think this character thinks? How do you think he feels? When you’re in one state, it can be very hard to imagine another state. If you’re cold it’s really hard to pack your bathing suit. You just can’t imagine that it could be warm somewhere else.
AC: So, how else do you talk to kids about it on a day-to-day basis? Say they hit someone. Do you say, “How do you think that makes him feel?”
MS: Mary Gordon’s first response to that is, “No. That’s not the first thing you ask. You ask…”How did you feel that you went and hit him?” Because before you can empathize you have to self-empathize. You have to know what’s going on with you. And so that I think is a very important piece. The great thing about her program is that a lot of it’s implicit rather than explicit, so you’re watching a mother and a baby and you’re learning, “Oh, that baby cries a lot.” In other words, it’s not a bad baby. It has a fussy or sensitive temperament. Then you can learn the lesson: “Maybe that’s what I have. Maybe I’m not bad.” That’s a lot of how the twelve-step programs work for addiction, where you sit there and you see this gorgeous model who says, “Oh my God, I’m so ugly. I hate myself.” And you’re like, “What the hell? Maybe I’m not so bad either.”
AC: Is it natural to exclude others?
MS: The fundamental thing that the neuroscience and the evolutionary stuff suggest is if we’re incredibly empathetic to “us” and we’re extremely cruel to “them,” then the more people we get in the circle of empathy—the more people we get into “us”—the less we have to worry about that side of ourselves, but it is there. You know, junior high is absolutely the worst time and it’s because I think that is when humans are learning group hierarchy behavior and In Group/Out Groups. And it’s brutal because they’re not civilized, and they’re still children and they still don’t have very much self control, and it’s just ruthless. And it’s very confusing as people are developing in different grades and that’s when bullying is the worst, because I think bullying is fundamentally an imposition of hierarchy, and an imposition of who’s In and who’s Out. So it doesn’t come from nowhere.
AC: How can adults mediate that?
MS: Even though it looks like people aren’t paying attention to the adults in school, the adults set the culture at the school. Adults have way more control over it than they realize. There are certain places where the adults are playing out their old high school and junior high stuff, and they’re in with the cool kids and they’re bullying the geeks themselves. Those are the schools where you get Columbine kind of stuff. There was a sociopath also involved in Columbine, but there was also a very bad school climate. And whether adults see bullying as “kids will be kids” and just tolerate it, or whether they try to push people towards more of their better side of the human nature, it makes a huge difference. Now there will still be bullying and there will still be outsiders and whatever, but their life won’t be that miserable. They will be slightly unhappy, not clinically depressed.
AC: When I was a new parent, there was all this literature about “zero to three” that suggested that between birth and age three children’s ability to form emotional connections could be destroyed. That scared me so much. Like if I screwed anything up in that window, it was undoable.
MS: Of course that’s not true. The real thing about zero to three is: Don’t live in extreme poverty and don’t sexually molest your child and don’t beat your child and don’t lock them in a closet. The reality is that those extremes are where the real damage is. Obviously you want to impart all kinds of good stuff as much as possible, but perfection isn’t required.
AC: And yet, children are very sensitive in those early years, aren’t they?
MS: Kids are going to copy you, so if you’re telling them to be empathetic but you’re not, you’re not going to teach them that. If you’re more concerned with, “Am I getting ahead?” or whatever, they’re going to pick that up. Everybody’s competitive sometimes and everybody’s selfish sometimes, but I think the really scary thing about zero to three is when kids pick up really random stuff and make it a huge part of themselves. It could be some offhand remark somebody makes and then they feel like, “Oh, I’m going to be the best person in the world at this,” and then they become whatever that is, but it also could be somebody’s offhand remark that is negative and then they think, “Oh, I’m a horrible person. I’m never going to be any good,” and they can take that in and build their whole self around that.
MS: Yeah. We’re fundamentally really vulnerable at that point, but the fortunate thing as well is of course all that stuff can be undone. Say they’re damaged, like someone’s been locking them in the closet during that time, then just teaching them ordinary language is going to require so much repetition that it’s probably practically impossible. If you had all the resources and twenty different teachers living with you 24/7, you might actually be able to do it, but if you get out of that developmental window, it’s really hard to fix. That’s why I think with autism especially, the earlier you can intervene the better.
AC: And for kids without autism?
MS: At certain stages of life you’re more prepared to get certain information, so you could easily become bilingual and trilingual in zero to five. It’s not so easy after that, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a language as an adult or even five or six languages if that’s what you so choose. So I think the plasticity stuff is important and we should empathize trying to make people’s childhood as good as possible, and I think the other piece that gets left out of this a lot is you don’t have daycare and healthcare. Without having that it’s really hard for anybody to get that stuff right unless they have a lot of resources.
AC: Right. How do you feel about all the talk of “mommy wars”?
MS: I just think all these “mommy wars” are so stupid, because if we make everybody have to make that choice for themselves with no resources, how can we then complain when somebody’s in an unlicensed situation where there’s twenty kids watching a television and that’s all the stimulation they’re getting? And then we complain, “Oh, women aren’t going into science.” Well, yeah. They want to reproduce and they can’t get tenure at the same time.
AC: You mentioned screen time—how bad is that for little kids?
MS: I think really little kids are going to have some screen time because we don’t have twenty family members around to entertain everybody. I think that’s fine, but when you get a situation where everybody’s off with their screen and nobody’s interacting all day, all the time, then no wonder everybody seems slightly autistic. It’s important to know what the changes that we’re going through are related to, whether they are something like you’re just not getting exposed to social cues or there’s a reason you’re tuning them out deliberately.
AC: How do children learn social cues?
MS: We used to be in not such an age-segregated society, so we could empathize across the age ranges. This whole, “It takes a village,” thing is huge, because we expect a woman to be at home alone with the kid, or the nanny alone with the kid, and that’s just completely unnatural. There used to be ten people or five people and three or four kids, and it’s not that way, and so the relational diversity that they used to get, which teaches them empathy of how different people work, they’re not getting. And if you are living in an air-conditioned limo and above everything, you don’t go on the train, you don’t have any interaction with anybody who isn’t your servant or working for you, how can you even know what other people go through? People like that don’t understand what it’s like to live on $10,000 a year.
AC: That seems to be an argument for the idealistic version of public school, which the children of the rich and poor would theoretically attend together.
MS: We don’t mix that way anymore, and that empathy is getting disconnected and so some rich people are thinking of the poor, “Oh, they’re all just wanting to lie around and do drugs and be welfare queens.” There’s a chapter in the book I was very pleased with: this big deal health insurance executive one day went back to his hometown in the South and he saw that there was this health fair where people could go to get blood pressure and stuff like that checked. There he found his high school friends getting primary care in a tent in the rain. And he was like, “I’m a part of this. I had no idea this is what the system was like.” He became a national healthcare advocate. He was able to empathize because those were people he knew.
AC: How can parents be more empathetic themselves?
MS: A lot of what you see in bad parenting is punishing and disciplining for things that the kid can’t control, like when they’re cranky because they’re hungry or the kid’s throwing stuff on the ground not because he’s bad, but because he’s learning about gravity at this age. And it’s really boring to us, but we didn’t just land on this planet. There’s a big difference between seeing that behavior as willful badness versus, “Oh, he’s a little scientist exploring.”
AC: Labeling a kid as a “bully” also seems problematic.
MS: There are kids who have a very callous temperament and they can’t feel much, so they don’t think other people can feel much and so they will prod people just to get sensation. But about 40 percent of them outgrow that and become okay. And certainly the sociopaths can either grow up to be serial killers or Wall Street executives based on how they’re taught to channel that impulse and what environment they grow up in. Certainly, a bit of that sensation-seeking stuff that is not about sadism, not about callousness—it’s just about a hunger for new experience, and that can be channeled into rock climbing or science or whatever engages their curiosity.
AC: How should bullying be punished at schools?
MS: Consequences need to be proportional and they need to be quick. From basic behaviorism you get that punishment is quickly associated, quickly over with and it’s way better than some severe punishment where all you do is build up resentment. People forget that the root of empathy is compassion for yourself. If you’re horrible to yourself, it’s really easy to be horrible to other people.
contributions from Frankie Thomas and Ilya Tsinis
Photo is courtesy of Barb Keith