Since the Jan. 14 death of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old in South Hadley, Mass., who committed suicide after being bullied by fellow students, many onlookers have meditated on whether the circumstances that led to her after-school hanging might have been avoided.
Could teachers have stepped in and stopped the bullying? Could parents have done more to curtail bad behavior? Or could preventive measures have been started years ago, in early childhood, long before bullies emerged and started heaping abuse on their peers?
Increasingly, neuroscientists, psychologists and educators believe that bullying and other kinds of violence can indeed be reduced by encouraging empathy at an early age. Over the past decade, research in empathy - the ability to put ourselves in another person's shoes - has suggested that it is key, if not the key, to all human social interaction and morality.
Without empathy, we would have no cohesive society, no trust and no reason not to murder, cheat, steal or lie. At best, we would act only out of self-interest; at worst, we would be a collection of sociopaths.
Although human nature has historically been seen as essentially selfish, recent science suggests that it is not. The capacity for empathy is believed to be innate in most humans, as well as some other species - chimps, for instance, will protest unfair treatment of others, refusing to accept a treat they have rightfully earned if another chimp doing the same work fails to get the same reward.
The first stirrings of human empathy typically appear in babyhood: newborns cry when hearing another infant's cry, and studies have shown that children as young as 14 months offer unsolicited help to adults who appear to be struggling to reach something. Babies have also shown a distinct preference for adults who help rather than hinder others.
But, like language, the development of this inherent tendency may be affected by early experience. As evidence, look no further than ancient Greece - at the millennia-old child-rearing practices of Sparta and Athens. Spartans, who were celebrated almost exclusively as warriors, raised their ruling-class boys in an environment of uncompromising brutality - enlisting them in boot camp at age 7, and starving them to encourage enough deviousness and cunning to steal food - which skillfully bred yet more generations of ruthless killers.
In Athens, future leaders were brought up in a more nurturing and peaceful way, at home with their mothers and nurses, starting education in music and poetry at 6. They became pioneers of democracy, art, theater and culture. "Just like we can train people to kill, the same is true with empathy. You can be taught to be a Spartan or an Athenian - and you can taught to be both," says Teny Gross, executive director of the outreach group Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in Providence, R.I., and a former sergeant in the Israeli army.
What the ancient Greeks intuited is supported by research today. Childhood - as early as infancy - is now known to be a critical time for the development of empathy. And although children can be astonishingly resilient, surviving and sometimes thriving despite abuse and neglect, studies show that those who experience such early trauma are at much greater risk of becoming aggressive or even psychopathic later on, bullying other children or being victimized by bullies themselves.
Simple neglect can be surprisingly damaging. In 2007, researchers published the first randomized, controlled study of the effect of being raised in an orphanage; that study, and subsequent research on the same sample of Romanian orphans, found that compared with babies placed with a foster family, those who were sent to institutions had lower IQs, slower physical growth, problems with human attachment and differences in functioning in brain areas related to emotional development.
Institutionalized infants do not experience being the center of a loving family's attention; instead, they are cared for a rotating staff of shift workers, which is inherently neglectful. Such children miss out on intensive, one-on-one affection and attachment with a parental figure, which babies need at that vulnerable age. Without that experience, they learn early on that the world is a cold, insecure and untrustworthy place. Their emotional needs having gone unmet, they frequently have trouble understanding or appreciating the feelings of others.
Nearly 90% of brain growth takes place in the first five years of life, and the minds of young children who have been neglected or traumatized often fail to make the connection between people and pleasure. That deficit can make it difficult for them to feel or demonstrate love later on. "You can enhance empathy by the way you treat children," says Martin Hoffman, an emeritus professor of psychology at New York University and a pioneer of empathy research, "or you can kill it by providing a harsh punitive environment."
Discipline, but Don't Punish?
The cold environment of an orphanage can be considered on a spectrum of punishment, at the other end of which is simple child discipline - an issue that sometimes confounds even the most mindful parents. How do you teach a child right from wrong without being too tough, or slipping into abuse? Who among us has not raised our voice - O.K., screamed - while disciplining our children?
But shouting at or, worse, hitting a child results in fear, rather than an understanding on the child's part of why he or she is being punished, say researchers. Over the long term, the routine use of corporal punishment, such as spanking, not only fails to change behavior for the better, but has also been shown to increase aggression in children.
"Instead of starting from the assumption that you have to beat the badness out of a child, turn on that empathy and compassion switch," says Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.
In other words, start by teaching children to understand their own behavior and feelings - it provides the basic tools for understanding the behavior and feelings of others. For instance, when dealing with a child who has hurt another person, help him or her "anchor how they felt in the moment," says Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy, a school-based program designed to foster compassion. "We always think we should start with, 'How do you think so-and-so felt?' But you will be more successful if you start with, 'You must have felt very upset.' The trick is to help children describe how they felt, so that the next time this happens, they've got language. Now, they can say 'I'm feeling like I did when I bit Johnny.'"
In Gordon's Roots of Empathy program, which is currently being used in about 3,000 kindergartens, elementary schools and middle schools in Canada, and 40 schools in Seattle, children get to see a visiting parent and infant interact in the classroom about once a month, and watch the foundations of empathy being built. When the baby cries, the Roots of Empathy instructor helps the mother and students think about what might be bothering the baby and how to make things better.
Students are taught that a crying baby isn't a bad baby, but a baby with a problem. By trying to figure out what's going on, the children learn to see the world through the infant's eyes, and to understand what it might be like to have needs but not be able to express them clearly.
"We love when we get a colicky baby," says Gordon, because then the mother usually tells the class how frustrating and annoying it is when the baby won't stop crying. That gives children insight into the parent's perspective - and how children's behavior can affect adults - something they have often never thought about. "If you look at the development of empathy, one of the key features is perspective-taking," says Gordon. "In coaching that skill, we help them [take the perspective of] their classmates."
To date, nine separate studies have shown that Roots of Empathy has helped reduce bullying at school, and increased supportive behavior among students. Many school districts in the U.S., including New York City's, have recently expressed interest in using Gordon's approach.
Setting an Empathetic Example
Her own family was a shining example. As a young girl in Newfoundland, Gordon says she grew up in a large, multigenerational family - including four siblings, two grandparents and a mentally disabled uncle - that also often included "strays." Her parents liked to take in people in need: unmarried pregnant women who had no place to go, recently released prisoners who would stop by for a free meal. Gordon also tagged along with her mother, an artist (Gordon's father was the Canadian minister of labor), as she visited poor families in the community, bringing them food, clothing and coal for heat.
When young Mary sneered and asked why a woman stored coal in her bathtub instead of bathing in it, her mother admonished her - but in private. "My mom would never embarrass anyone, so she wouldn't embarrass me as a child either. She saw the dignity in everybody," Gordon says. "In the car, she said, 'You judged that woman when you made that face.' She would say, 'She's made the best decisions she could with the challenges she has, and you don't know her challenges.'"
Not every child is raised by a Mother Gordon. But even children who have survived rough environments - like the gang members Teny Gross of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence works with in Providence - can be helped to "catch" empathy.
Gross has found that his outreach workers are most successful when they build relationships based on caring and fairness. "People have a sense of justice," Gross says, explaining why even troubled teens respond well when counselors, with whom they have an ongoing relationship, take a firm stance with them regarding their behavior. "[Our kids are] used to injustice; they're used to abuse at school and from the police. But when constraints come from a place of love and caring, people don't think it violates their sense of justice.
Gross's program focuses on introducing young men and boys in gangs to a new network of people who not only care about them, but do so dependably - providing the kind of secure environment that many of them missed in childhood. By employing former gang members to mentor the troubled boys, Gross makes it easier for them to foster relationships of mutual understanding and connection with one another. Mentors show up consistently at the boys' important events - court dates, funerals - demonstrating care and concern. They also organize social outings for the boys, like a trip to a local beach last summer for a day of surfing. That excursion purposefully included boys from rival gangs, in the hopes that the introductions could help reduce violence later on.