There’s a change occurring in the world of parenting today. A gradual shift is taking shape and gliding toward new ways of envisioning and inhabiting the parent-child relationship. The old adages we grew up with — of children being seen and not heard, of sparing the rod risking spoiling the child, and of doing as I say not as I do — are loosing their mental grip on Western society and new thoughts and ideas are filling in that space. No one had Attachment Theory when our grandparents were being raised — though some of them of course were still experiencing deep parent-child bonding — there wasn’t a way of referencing it or of disseminating it as an approach to parenting, it wasn’t studied, it more than likely wasn’t even present in the intellectual mind of any parent using its like (much the way that something like “sexism in the workplace” wouldn’t be present in their thinking). Beginning with our great-/grandparents, most people in “developed countries”, until quite recently and statistically speaking still, parent/ed using at least some version (however mythologized it may have been) of B.F. Skinner’s Behaviorism and/or it’s antecedent and decedent modes of cultural thinking. When his work actually came out and was spread through the scientific community it shone as the loan example of science’s approach to parenting and so it rang as the tune of truth — unchallenged.
Today, we’re seeing what in many ways has reached the critical mass to be called a sweeping movement away from behavioral modification techniques, and toward methods of relating with our children that honour the biochemical and emotional bonds and the neural design of connection and social development that most humans naturally carry and express and share. Put another way, we’re realizing as a species that what works best in raising our young is to respect our nature as nurturers. We are exploring the antipodes of our parenting minds only to find our-instinctual-selves waiting for us upon those foreign shores. We’re now doing the research and now able to peek inside some of the neurological processes involved in child development, and it is becoming clearer and clearer that we are hard-wired to connect and work socially together, but the manner in which we are connected with directly relates to how well we develop our innate predilections. The other thing that has now been researched quite a bit more since the days of Skinner’s rise to popularity is just how deleterious behavior modification techniques can be to development, to the parent-child relationship, and to the emotional life of the child (throughout development and into adulthood), as well as how ineffectual behavior modification itself is as a tool in parenting — both in reproducing preferred behaviors and in reducing the ones that aren’t preferred. Having the current perspective that behavior modification doesn’t work and has negative repercussions on development and emotional stability on the one hand, and strong neuroscience displaying both the apparatuses for social(-izing) connection and the developmental effects of healthy attachment on these neural structures on the other hand, presents humanity with the grand opportunity to give ourselves over/back to our natures and our natural nurturing drives and instincts. And we seem to be doing just that.
One of the fastest growing subtitles of parenting advice is Attachment Parenting and its various offshoots — Positive Parenting, Natural Parenting, Connection Parenting, Gentle Parenting, Authentic Parenting, Aware Parenting and Empathy Parenting, among others. Natalie and I call the constellation of points we specialize in — Parenting on the SameTeam — and while it is Attachment-based, we include aspects that go beyond the establishment and maintenance of attachment itself and focus on using the bond to build relationship and using that relationship to enhance our children’s development and inspire co-operation in both the long and short terms. And we, along with a whole host of other parenting thinkers, theorists, and mentors, happen to believe that Empathy is the sharpest tool in the proverbial shed of parenting.
So what’s all the hubbub, Bub? What’s the big freaking brain deal?! Why is it so important that we bother using Empathy (with a capital blinking E) when wrangling our particular (packs of) ankle-biters? And how the heck is all this snuggling supposed to help teach kids how to be good?!
Well here’s my current list of reasons why Empathy is the most important parenting technique we can learn:
- First and foremost — Empathy is the root of all social guidelines. Every decent law ever written, every code of moral conduct, every rule we try to instill in our children, all center on and originate from empathizing with others. That’s the end and it therefore ought to be the means of every direction or re-direction or interaction involving behavior(s). Teaching empathy is the shortest distance between our noble savage infants and the consistently caring, compassionate, “more civilized” adults that we hope to help them become.
- Second and secondmost — Empathizing is what our brains were meant to do. We are neurologically built to automatically internalize the experience of others we see around us. One of the processes/structures for doing that is the mirror neuron system — which, if you’ve been around this blog at all yet, you’ve endured me going on about before and with some frequency. When we see or even hear a smile, our brain runs a quick simulation of the neural-motor-process of making the same expression, and then gets an internal feel of the expression and it’s correlative emotion(s), in order for us to interpret the emotion(s) of the person smiling. When they are developed in a normal healthy manner, we use mirror neurons all day long to neurologically imitate and decipher the intent of what we experience others doing around us. In order to be able to interpret those sometimes very subtle movements and isolate those interpretations from our own feelings and even in order to understand what we ourselves are feeling and be able to regulate our emotions — we need empathy input during early development.
- Offering Empathy (en)trains our children’s brains to develop and express it themselves. Aside from the mirroring aspects of emotion, and of empathy, and of both individual and shared identity intimated above, and the manners in which modeling empathy helps teach our children’s brains to respond in kind; there is another brain structure involved here that is worth noting. It’s the cingulate cortex and I’ve mentioned it before as well. One of the interesting things about this area of the brain, largely devoted to the regulation of our emotions, is that it is one of the earliest developing (and oldest evolutionarily) structures in the so-called neo-cortex where our executive functions originate and later brain-structure enhancements reside. This old part of that new area, kicks in and begins running while the more specialized mirror neurons are adding programs (and more programs and even more programs…). So even before the infant brain is able to mirror all of what we are modeling in terms of the uses and expressions of empathy, the cingulate is aligning and harmonizing mother-infant emotional states. When a child cries out, the cingulate in his brain erupts into action, and in gearing up the mother’s brain for instantaneous responses (of various kinds across her entire nervous system), her cingulate is lighting up in much the same ways as the child’s. Interestingly, her immediate and calm response and the internal machinations of her own system’s calming itself down, help the mother to calm the child just by cingulate entrainment with him. Over time, the mother’s and other care-giver’s responses and cingulate harmonizing enable the child’s brain with (unconscious) self-soothing capabilities — and real ones, not the mythical self-soothing abilities that are supposed to appear out of nowhere to help infants put themselves to bed — as well as engendering a stronger cingulate response and fuller expression of empathy when they go to respond to others in need. Put more simply, when a mother responds empathetically to her child, she empowers the child’s brain with greater capacity for empathy. This all happens without a single lesson on why it’s important or on how to act with empathy.
- Responding to our children’s emotional processes with Empathy assists them in full neural development and access. You’ve surely heard, and I’ve of course mentioned before that we have three basic levels to our brains. The reptilian brain is the oldest most basic set of structures, governs all the bodily functions necessary to stay alive, and is shared among all living vertebrates. The mammalian brain governs our emotions and social behavior, is newer than, built on top of, but is superseded in developmental and functional priority by the reptilian portion. The rational brain is the latest set of neural structures and governs our abilities to problem-solve, think creatively, make decisions, and choose to express kindness among others, and its development and our access to it on any given day are contingent on the lower brains’ stability. If humans are emotionally upset, especially children, we lose access to our higher functions, and increasingly so as we get more upset. The reptilian and mammalian brains can just jump in and take control until their needs are met. If we happen to get truly upset, the reptilian brain will send us into fight-or-flight mode, temporarily usurping even our ability to process our emotions or access “mammalian processing” at all. So in order to help kids survive infancy, we have to take care of the reptilian brain. In order to give them access to social functioning, we have to care for the both the reptilian brain’s and the mammalian brain’s needs. And in order to develop and have access to the executive functioning in the rational brain, we have to tend to not only it’s needs but also the needs of it’s predecessors (in development, priority, and access). Sharing Empathy is the single best means for helping children process all emotions and get access to, and over time better develop, their executive capabilities. When we empathize with our little ones, and help them move through emotions they are processing, we help naturalize this process for them, we help make room for rational brain development, and we deepen the connections that make them feel safe and secure enough to continue developing and eventually spending more time in an executive-able state. When they “regress” during emotional episodes, we can use empathy to help them get through the feelings, and return to their (more) rational minds.
- Empathy feels good to us and safe to our children. When humans empathize, we feel the connective consciousness that comes with it. We feel closer to ourselves (if we’re self-empathizing) and to others (when offering empathy outward). When our children feel us hold them with our empathy, and can lean on us when they are “incapacitated” by emotional processing, they feel safe — in the world and even from the overwhelmingness of themselves and their own emotions. That safety is good for their brains, good for their emotional regulation, and good for our shared relationship with them.
- Empathy gives parents super powers. With empathy, and when we employ it, we can melt huge hairy arguments and evaporate giant gnarly issues. When we help kids manage the big feelings that come up when issues arise for them, we often find that the issues themselves disappear as the feelings shrink and shift. Empathy “covers us” when we’re going into the fray, restores order, and mends relations. When we use it on ourselves it can recharge our batteries, help us avoid potential disasters, and calm our own emotions enough to find patience and fortitude that we never knew we had. And, furthermore, empathizing (whether with self or others) can help reprogram our own brains to better deal with all present and future emotional stress, to choose more compassionate (re)actions, and to heal from past emotional suffering we experienced but didn’t get to release. Holy Single-Compartment Utility Belt, Batman!
- Empathy turns upsetting moments, issues, and episodes into opportunities to connect, to deepen and fortify the parent-child bond, to heal, and to prove (over and over) to our children’s brains that they are secure and welcome to develop here. By using empathy — when problems happen, they end in hugs, neural harmonizing, emotional healing and bonding, and psychological co-stabilizing. We help our children know that we can be trusted when they feel vulnerable, and we show them that relating is the way we work this life. This combination is ideal for helping to inspire co-operation in present and future endeavors, because our children wind up deepening the intellectual identification they have with us, feeling closer to us, and wanting to be caught up in the relatingof the relationship all the more.
I know there’s more I could come up with for you if I took a little more time, but at this point, I’m thinking maybe it’d be wisest not to take up any more of yours…
Be well my natural born empathizers. “Take the time it takes [to empathize] and it will take less time.” And don’t forget to breathe.
Author: Nathan M. McTague, CPCC