TERRY PRONE: It’s a shame we squeeze the empathy from our children

How do children with such an inherent concern for equity turn into internet trolls, asks Terry Prone

She’s six months old, able to sit up with only occasional lapses to left or right, and is now at the stage where her mother and father are beginning to try her with little bits of solid food. The trials are varied in their outcomes. The mashed-up chicken, carrot, and butternut squash experiment ended with her total satisfaction, and with photographs that — to quote Amy Huberman — looked like a dirty protest in a Cambodian prison.

But it was the quarter of lemon that generated the best pictures. She got a good grasp of the lemon in her little fist when it was offered to her, and was able to bring it to her mouth no problem. However, every time her mouth had an encounter with the lemon, her entire little face warped and she shuddered all over. It looked like torture, but because this kid is like a baby version of Paschal Donohoe — all chin-up optimism and faith in the future — no way was she going to let go of the lemon or abandon the challenge. Just as Paschal is convinced that although the public sector pay talks will be “incredibly challenging”, he will nonetheless bring them to a satisfactory conclusion, so this kid, sooner or later, expected to work on that lemon and turn it sweet. Even if it didn’t, she was going to hang in there and give it the old nursery try.

When another, slightly younger baby in the room began to cry, she was distracted from the lemon, and clearly bothered by it. What emerging research shows is that there’s a good chance, within only a matter of months, she will demonstrate her concern for the other child by offering it something. Hopefully not the lemon, which would constitute an improvement that made things worse. The offering is more likely to be a favourite toy.

Emerging research encouragingly shows that the concepts of altruism and fairness embed themselves in children much earlier than was previously thought. We have known for a while that some two-year-olds, encountering distress in others, tend to reach out to help them, in some cases offering their own toy to the other distressed child, but Jessica Somerville, a professor of early childhood development, wondered if these valuable traits might show up at even younger ages in children, maybe even as young as 15 months.

The experiment she dreamed up to test out this possibility involved babies of that age sitting with their parents and watching short videos. The videos showed Individual A holding a bowl of biscuits. A then distributed the biscuits between two people. Twice. The first time, he gave each of the other two an equal share. The second time he gave one of them much more of the biscuits than the other received. The babies copped on quickly to what was happening. When the biscuits were inequitably shared, some of the babies paid much more attention.This apparently happens when babies are surprised, or experience “violation of expectancy”. Like adults faced with something that doesn’t obey the norms, their focus and fascination increased enormously.

The little ones who paid more attention seemed to expect fairness and were riveted when it didn’t happen. Interestingly, the ones who were most bothered by the inequity turned out, in a later phase of the study, to be the ones overwhelmingly likely to share their favourite toy when asked to. What hasn’t been established by this study, which was funded by America’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is whether this sense of equity is inborn or picked up by babies from watching the interactions of others but it raised profound questions for parents and those who care for small children.

Julian Barnes, author of The Sense of an Ending, said: “You can’t love someone without imaginative sympathy, without beginning to see the world from another point of view. You can’t be a good lover, a good artist or a good politician without this capacity.”

He is, of course, right, and that’s why a book by Peter Bazalgette, published in recent weeks by John Murray and entitled The Empathy Instinct, should be required reading for anybody who wants to be any of the three, plus any parent or carer for a baby.

Bazelgette believes that babies, at an astonishingly young age, have “an inherent sense of fairness, of right and wrong”. He cites a study of one-year-olds by a Yale psychologist named Paul Bloom. Prof Bloom did a kind of Punch and Judy show for the babies, though omitting the domestic abuse which used to characterise this beachside entertainment. He had a few puppets and a ball. One of the puppets rolled the ball to another puppet, who rolled it right back. So far, so good. Then the puppet rolled the ball to a third puppet (bring on the minor key music) who not only didn’t roll it back, but, instead, picked it up and ran away with it. This is where booing such as inflicted on Ivanka Trump at that women’s event is appropriate. Bad puppet.

Once the villainy of the thieving puppet was fully established, Prof Bloom showed them the puppets with little treats in front of each and gave the children permission to remove a treat if they wanted to. Justice kicked in immediately. Most of the children took away the treat from the villainous puppet, and I hear a round of applause for their good judgment. Bazalgette notes: “In fact, one toddler with a particularly keen sense of justice, leant over and smacked the nasty puppet on the head.

“What’s so fascinating about this study is that the babies were not having something they wanted taken away from them personally. That would predictably cue distress or outrage. They were watching it happen to someone else and having to project their thinking into that third-party situation. On top of that, it was a dramatic representation of reality that they had to understand. Their sense that reciprocity is fair, even moral, is surely based on identifying with the plight of the generous puppet who offers the ball in play and is rejected, even cheated.”

Not all of the babies seemed to have an inbuilt sense of fairness and altruism. But the majority did.

Which begs the question: What, in the way we bring up children, removes those traits or at least dilutes them, so that they lose that vital connection? How do children with such an inherent concern for equity and for others turn into internet trolls? And what should we, as adults, be doing differently?

This isn’t just a soft-and-fuzzy question. The capacity to put yourself in the shoes of another person is pivotal to solid adult relationships and to great performance in the workplace. Arguably the single most important human trait is empathy, yet we spend neither time nor money on nurturing it so that it stays and develops as one-year-olds move into toddlerhood, childhood, and adulthood.


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