Childhood is where we first experience empathy. As parents, we play a critical role in how well our children develop empathy with other people. Parents who are empathetic toward others will provide a template for how their children will respond to others. Parents who are inattentive, insensitive or harsh will create a different template for their children; these children will relate to others with less empathy, and will also be prone to more aggressive or acting out behavior. Children who learn to be empathetic are more likely to have better social skills and get along better with other children.
In their new book, Born for Love :Why Empathyis Essential-and Endangered, Maia Szalavitz and Bruce Perry, M.D.,Ph.D. propound a theory that empathy is a necessary ingredient for becoming a healthy adult. They outline a number of factors that might be putting empathy at risk. One of these factors is how children are spending their time. In a Psychology Today blog they discuss this issue and how it might relate to the drop in college student’s scores on empathy. They say:
“Without unstructured free time with playmates, children simply don't get to know each other very well. And you can't learn to connect and care if you don't practice these things. Free play declined by at least a third between 1981 and 2003--right when the kids who hit college in 2000 and later were growing up.
Worse, much of the time that used to be spent playing outdoors is now spent in front of screens. Television, obviously cannot teach empathy. Even nonviolent kids' TV, research finds, is filled with indirect aggression and linked to increased real-world bullying. Though social media is an improvement on passive TV viewing and can sometimes aid real friendships, it is still less rich than face to face interaction. This is especially important for the youngest children whose brains are absorbing social information that will shape the way they connect for the rest of their lives.”
Szalavitz and Perry’s book encourages us to look closely at the threats to the development of empathy and to consider finding a better balance between enjoying the benefits of social media while also seeing their limitations. They support providing our children with more actual rather than virtual involvement with others. Free time and face to face interactions give children the opportunity to learn nuanced social cues and develop sensitivity to others which lead to empathy.