elephant - The Real Roots of Empathy

Every now and then I read a bizarre article in a magazine that fails to mention the one big elephant in the room. You know the ones: articles that talk about how women make less than men, but they fail to talk about how women take time off to have children. Or articles that talk about how badly certain racial communities do in school, but they fail to talk about the family makeup of many within that community.

A while ago I found an article in Time magazine, and I bookmarked it to come back to later.

Here’s the argument, and you tell me if you can figure out what’s missing:

Children need to learn empathy to avoid growing up as a bully. Children who are raised impersonally, like in an orphanage or in Sparta, often lose the ability to have any empathy at all. Certain school curricula can teach children empathy.

See anything absent? I sure do. How about this? The biggest difference between toddlers who are sent to day care and children who are raised by a parent is the ability to feel empathy. The article goes on and on about how schools can raise children’s levels of empathy, but fails to point out that perhaps the reason we’re in the mess we’re in is that parents aren’t raising their children in the first place.

Now, let me put a caveat in here. I know daycare is sometimes necessary. I grew up in daycare, and I turned out rather well (though I hated being in daycare; I don’t remember much from when I was 3, but I do remember that). My mother was single, and she had no choice.

I also know that parents who have their children in a small, family run daycare, where they are cared for by a friend, often do fine. I’m not talking about them. But I know lots of parents who have more than enough money for one parent to stay at home who instead opt for their child to go to day care so that the parents can pursue a career. Here’s a paragraph in that article that stood out to me:

Institutionalized infants do not experience being the center of a loving family’s attention; instead, they are cared for by a rotating staff of workers, which is inherently neglectful. The infants 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.

babies crying - The Real Roots of EmpathyThe author is referring to Romanian orphanages, but I see little difference between that and daycares, where you have a ratio of four babies to one caregiver. Who honestly thinks those babies are getting personalized attention? I have several friends who work at a daycare, and all are uncomfortable with the care. Two have recently quit; one to do foster care, and one to do something else entirely. Both women raised their children at home, and the contrast between the care that they gave their own kids and the care that they were able to give all these kids at a large daycare was stark. They felt that it was wrong to exacerbate the situation by actually helping parents leave their children at the daycare which they knew was not good quality for the children, even though these women are amazing moms.

And it was hard on them, too. They were hit. They were bitten. They were routinely smacked. And not by children from “bad” homes, either. On the whole, these are kids from two-parent homes, where the parents go to church. But daycare is not a fun place to work, because the children often are quite violent.

Home daycares can be a different story, but when there are cribs lined up everywhere, so all the children can go to sleep at the same time, even if there are also colourful toys and stimulating pictures and loads of books, there’s something wrong. And studies show that.

In order to develop empathy, children must feel a sense of attachment to their caregiver. They have to have long interactions where they “converse”, even if it consists of just cooing and the parent figure gushing over them and tickling them. It’s hard to attach when daycare workers change as frequently as they do (turnover is horrible in daycares). And you can’t have one-on-one time when there are just so many kids who need your attention. It isn’t the daycare workers’ fault.

I feel as if there is a conspiracy of silence around this, and it isn’t just hurting kids. It’s hurting families, too. I know many women who want to stay home with their kids, but they’re being told by husbands and parents that kids in daycare do fine. In fact, they do better in school because they’re so stimulated! So you should work. How can they refute that?

You are enough for your child. In fact, you are indispensable for your child. And rather than relying on schools to teach your children empathy and attachment, I think we should rely on ourselves. Certainly it is hard to survive on one income, and you might need part-time care. But on the whole, try to be the primary caregiver for your child. Hire friends or family to care for your children if necessary. And remember that there really is no substitute for a loving Mommy.

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