Empathy Crisis: Why Children Are Crueler

by | May 2, 2010 | Character and Moral Intelligence, Empathy and Kindness

EMPATHY: Identifying with and feeling other people’s concerns.

Eleven-year-old Nathaniel Abraham from Pontiac, Michigan, told his friend that he was going to shoot somebody. He allegedly stole a gun and practiced his aim on stationary targets. Then he walked to a convenience store, pointed his gun at a stranger and shot Ronnie Greene Jr. in the head. The eighteen-year-old youth died hours later. The next day the sixth grader bragged about the killing to his friends. At his trial, Nathaniel turned and looked at his mother and other relatives and showed no emotion as he was convicted. And the sixty-five pound youth became one of nation’s youngest children charged with first-degree murder.

Two-year-old James Bulger was separated from his mother in a shopping center in Liverpool, England. A security camera showed two ten-year-olds, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, leading the toddler away. The boys threw more than twenty bricks at the two-year-old, kicked him, tore off his lower lip, stripped him, and possibly molested him. They then left James’s body on the tracks to appear as though the murder were accidental, and went into a video store to watch cartoons on television.

On a school snow day in northeast Pennsylvania, nine-year-old Cameron Kocher was playing Nintendo with Jessica Carr, age seven. A parent stopped the game because the kids had made a mess and the two had argued; Cameron went home angry. He then took a rifle from his family gun cabinet, went back and shot Jessica, and hid the spent cartridge. As Jessica’s mother futilely tried to save her daughter, Cameron went back to playing Nintendo. Later he told the other kids who were crying over their friend’s death, “If you don’t think about it, you won’t be sad.”

Shocking as these stories are, they are true. Each involved grade school children who knew it was wrong to kill but did. They were all cold-hearted kids without an ounce of empathy-the one virtue that experts say could possibly have stopped them committing from their horrific acts. The good news is that empathy can be fostered in kids, and we can begin when they are very young. Doing so may be the best hope for preventing yet another tragic story. And we have major work to do when it comes to empathy building.

The Empathy Development Crisis in Youth

Empathy, the first essential virtue of moral intelligence, is the ability to identify with and feel for another person’s concerns. It’s the powerful emotion that halts violent and cruel behavior and urges us to treat others kindly. Because empathy emerges naturally and quite early, our children are born with a huge built-in advantage for their moral growth. But whether our kids will develop this marvelous capacity to feel for others is far from guaranteed. Although children are born with the capacity for empathy, it must be properly nurtured or it will remain dormant. And therein lies the crisis: over the past years, many environmental factors that research has found to be critical to the enhancement of empathy are disappearing, replaced by more negative ones. Although there certainly are other conditions that hinder kids’ capacities to feel for others, the following five factors are especially lethal in squelching empathy, and point to a crisis in its development.

Emotional Unavailability of Parents

Studies find that when it comes to enhancing kids’ empathy, not just any parent will do. Milestone studies by John Gottman of the University of Washington found the parents who are best at developing empathy in their children are those who are both actively involved in their kids’ lives and emotionally available. That’s why it’s especially troubling that total one-on-one time between parents and their kids has dwindled dramatically over the past few decades. A university study found that today’s mothers who work outside the home spend an average of eleven minutes daily in exclusive quality interaction time with their children on weekdays and about thirty minutes on weekends. The data for fathers were only eight and fourteen minutes respectfully. Nonworking mothers didn’t fare much better, devoting an average of thirteen minutes per day.

A recent poll taken of children as young as nine years old revealed only 40 percent of boys and 50 percent of girls spent almost all weekend with their parents, and 25 percent of the young boys reported spending no hours with their families The emotional availability of parents is diminishing for a number of reasons, including parental illness, death, work, fatigue, and divorce. Whatever the cause, critical empathy-building moments for kids are being lost as well.

Absence of Supportive Fathers

Research confirms what many have known all along: involved dads can make a major contribution to raising empathic kids. A long-term study begun in the 1950s, for instance, found that children whose fathers were positively involved in their care when they were age five were found thirty years later to be more empathic adults than those whose fathers were absent. Another study involving first grade boys in intact families revealed that children whose fathers took more responsibility for their sons’ discipline and school work and were more involved in their children’s personal problems had significantly higher levels of empathy. And this was true regardless of the father’s own level of empathy.

Aside from the many fathers who don’t take an active parenting role, there are the troubling numbers who have chosen to be completely absent from their kids’ lives. A recent White House report found that fewer than 25 percent of young boys and girls experience an average of at least one hour a day of relatively individualized contact with their fathers.So another critical nurturer of empathy—good old dad—is not at home to teach the lessons of compassion and right and wrong.

Barrage of Cruel Media Images

Over the past decade, our kids have been bombarded with television, movies, music, video and arcade games, and Internet content that emphasize violence, nastiness, and cruelty. It is affecting our kids. Here’s why: behavior is generally learned by imitating observed experiences; so the more examples of caring our kids witness, the greater the chance that those will be the kinds of behaviors they copy. A number of studies have found that watching television programs with prosocial messages increases cooperation, sensitivity, and caring among children and they will tend to imitate those kind behaviors.Research also shows that those prosocial behaviors are substantially enhanced when parents watch the show with their children and discuss or role-play those kind behaviors.

Of course, the reverse is also true: the continual barrage of cruel images teaches our kids cruel behaviors that stifle their capacity for empathy. As Madeline Levine states in her book See No Evil, “There is a large body of research focusing on the effects of media violence on preschool children. Almost without exception, this research has found that viewing violence makes children more aggressive, more restless, more fearful, less creative, and less sensitive.” The American Academy of Pediatrics points out that well over one thousand studies overwhelmingly conclude that viewing violent entertainment can increase aggressive values and behavior in children. They further state that viewing violence can desensitize kids to empathy because it can decrease the likelihood that they will take action on behalf of victims when violence occurs.

Raising Boys (Now Girls) to Mask their Feelings

Studies find that when it comes to emotions, parents raise sons very differently than they do daughters. Parents discuss feelings more and use a greater array of words for emotions with their daughters than they do with their sons. They also encourage their daughters to share their feelings, whereas boys are typically told to mask their emotional pain. Considering that a major determinant of whether a child develops the ability to feel for others is how well he understands and can express his own feelings, it is easy to see that parents’ attitudes toward their son’s emotional expression can hinder a boy’s empathy development.

William Pollack, author of Real Boys, explains, “Research shows that boys begin their lives with a natural sense of empathy, which is antithetical to violence. By second grade boys seem far less attuned to feelings of hurt and pain in others, and begin to lose their capacity to express their own emotions and concerns in words.” In fact, the only emotion that boys learn that is acceptable to express is anger while society pressures them to avoid expressing feelings. So their anger slowly fuels while their potential for empathy is diminished. And Pollack points the impact can be lethal, “This is the process that pushes boys to wear a mask of bravado. And this, in large part, is what makes them violent.”

Watch out: I fear the same is now happening to our girls.

Abuse in the Cradle

Absorbing new research by Dr. Bruce Perry of Baylor College of Medicine finds that the first three years of a child’s life are pivotal in building the capacity for empathy or planting the seeds of violence. A large determinant as to which way a child’s moral development goes is how she is treated by her primary caregivers. Perry states that empathy can be greatly impaired in those first thirty-six months as a result of repeated stress—abuse, neglect, and trauma. Mark Barnett of Kansas State University explains that if young kids “have not had their emotional needs satisfied, they may not realize that they need to be concerned about or sensitive toward others’ emotional needs.” Considering the staggering numbers of child abuse cases, we are forced to conclude many of America’s youngest citizens have dismal moral futures.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that nearly three million children were reported to child protective service agencies for abuse and neglect. One in three victims of physical abuse was a baby less than twelve months old.Child Protective Services reports that three quarters of child fatalities are under three years of age.Though reported cases of child abuse and neglect vary per agency, for the past three years they appear to be declining.  But it’s certainly no cause to celebrate: any report of child abuse is one case too many. Although your child may not be affected by these issues, chances are she will be associating with other kids who are. Because peers are moral influences, in the end all our kids are affected.

The Call to Action

Many environmental factors identified as critical for the development of empathy are dwindling. I’ve described only five. Although no one factor by itself predisposes a child to cruelty, researchers stress that the interaction of factors may be enough to trigger antisocial behavior. Therefore it is vital that we do everything we can to counteract these negative influences by nurturing the core moral emotion of empathy. As long as we allow these negative influences to continue, many children’s capacities to feel for others will be extinguished and their emotional lives will be empty. The greatest factor that is increasing the empathy crisis: we are allowing cruel behaviors to continue. The fact is each act of cruelty becomes easier and soon a child’s self-image reframes: “Cruelty is acceptable.”

Unless we adults recognize the deadly consequences, the empathy crisis and kid cruelty epidemic will go on.

It’s time to get serious.

It’s time for adults to step up.

It’s time.

For specific strategies to enhance empathy refer to my books, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries (particularly the chapters on Bullying, Bullied and Insensitive) and Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing. I also post ongoing blogs about these topics on my website, MicheleBorba.com or follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba.