Having proper care and concern for others is essential to a sound character. And most of the time our willingness to show care and concern arises out of empathy. While there is much evidence to suggest that our capacity to empathize (which may very well lie along a continuum) is rooted in our constitutional makeup, research also shows environment and learning strongly influence not only how empathetic we eventually become but also how prone we are to behaving in caring and concerned ways.
There are some among us who are innately impaired in their capacity to empathize. Some autistic spectrum children, especially those at the more severely autistic end of the continuum have a diminished capacity to empathize. Psychopaths, by definition, have a markedly diminished if not absent capacity for empathy. And in those cases where psychopathic individuals actually do have some empathy capacity they also have the uncanny ability to mentally wall-off or “compartmentalize” their emotions to such an extent that they can act in a manner devoid of care and concern for the welfare of others (for more on psychopathy and empathy capacity and the penchant for compartmentalization see the articles: What is a Psychopath, Psychopathy and Sociopathy, Is Psychopathy Genetic?, Predators Among Us: The Psychopaths, and Malignant Narcissism: At the Core of Psychopathy). So, nuturing empathy in those whose capacity is limited for one reason or another is a real challenge. But even when sufficient capacity for empathy is present, it generally takes a fair amount of nurturing of that capacity for a person to come by the motivation necessary to display their care and concern in appropriate ways and at appropriate times.
Some time ago I wrote an article about some middle school-aged youngsters who were captured on their bus’s videocam mercilously taunting a safety monitor (see: Budding Psychopaths on the Bus?). This raised the question of whether, in their apparent gross lack of any empathy, these children were all psychopaths or at least psychopaths in the making. The event also raised questions about all those children who stood by and failed to intervene or to at least come to the victim’s emotional aid. Perhaps a few of the children had some severely character-disordered or even psychopathic traits (especially the ringleaders), but I dare say it would be a stretch to cast a busload of average preteens and early teens as a clan of psychopaths and budding psychopaths. The greater likelihood is, therefore, that the empathy capacity of the children had not been adequately nurtured and the willingness to act in an empathetic way was not adequately reinforced. It’s also likely that other factors (e.g., fear of reprisal, feal of social ostracization, etc.) were at play in those children who didn’t act on whatever care and concern they might have had. So while several of these children may have been to some degree character-impaired, and while their character deficiencies likely stemmed to some degree from insufficiently developed empathy, it’s unlikely the bus was loaded with psychopaths.
We don’t know all we need to know about how to successfully nurture empathy in our children but we do know a few things:
- Children who are treated in an empathetic manner (i.e. where their emotional needs are both recognized and appropriately tended to by empathetic caregivers) are more likely to develop mature empathy themselves.
- Children who have learned to take another person’s perspective (i.e. put themselves in another’s shoes) do a better job of displaying empathy. But this involves more than just being lectured about what the other person probably feels. Rather, they have to be reinforced for reflecting on how they would feel if they were in the same situation and how they would want to be treated.
- Childen who have empathy modeled for them as a primary core value are much more likely to internalize it and display it when the situation dictates. When too many other core values (e.g., striving for personal satisfaction, achieving goals, meeting personal needs) compete with or take precedence over caring, it’s all-too-easy even for a sensitive child to have problems showing their care and concern when warranted.
In Character Disturbance, I talk about the “10 commandments” of sound character development. And several of those “commandments” involve lessons essential to the development of healthy empathy (see pp. 140-155), which testifies to how crucial I think the nurturing of this attribute is to healthy character formation in general and especially healthy conscience formation.
Sunday’s Character Matters Program will again be a live broadcast, so I can take your calls. There has been some difficulty with the phone-in system lately and the best the show’s producer and others can make of the situation is that when listeners abroad (or domestically) use one of the voice-over-internet protocols as opposed to an actual land line phone or cellular phone to call-in they can’t be appropropriately patched in to the program. We’re looking into possible solutions to this problem.
Also, as many of you already know, the planned webinar for this fall, which was tentatively scheduled for today, has had to be postponed. The decision to do this had nothing to do with level of interest which was not only sufficiently high early on to adequately support the enterprise but also has only grown substantially. Rather the issues relate to platform, logistics, and my availability. The good news is that I have contracted with a reputable nationwide seminar company not only to do a series of workshops across the country but also to have webinars developed in part from the taped procedings. There are still plans for a webinar this fall, although it will probably not occur until later this year. And webinars will hopefully be a regular quarterly feature once the seminars are well underway. Look for the calendar of events and appearances to be updated in just a few weeks. And while the initial seminars will be mostly for a professional audience (which necessarily involves a relatively heftier fee), we currently plan for the seminars to be also open to the general public.