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Stupid Stupid Stupid Scientists (an objective assessment of what they can teach us about raising kids)

July 22, 2007

Warning: Contains some ranting.I keep seeing the phrase ‘development of empathy’ used in a way that implies that empathy starts off at a ‘zero’ level in a child and gradually builds up as they get older. A possible conclusion you might reach from this is that the people who say this have never met any children – except that there are too many people who say it. They’re so wrong that I would suggest to them that really we need be more concerned about the loss of empathy that seems to occur across a person’s life span in this culture than how to develop it inthe young.
I’m sure every parent reading this can think of a hundred ways that their children have displayed empathy. I’ve found an article by the American Psychological Association summarising the science in this area and basically I’m going to tear it to shreds – but in a fair and balanced kind of way.

First problem; it’s called “What Makes Kids Care”.

Stupid! You can’t make anyone care, you can only LET them care. Trying to force a person to care will almost always have the opposite result.

To be fair to the article the use of the word ‘make’ is so ingrained in our culture that we don’t usually notice it – but then that’s the problem isn’t it? We can only ever conceive of getting something to happen in our culture by using an element of force – or if we’re advanced, trickery.

The news is not all bad about our scientists though, they are beginning to cotton on to this empathy in children idea.

Researchers used to believe that a sense of real caring about others came as people grow into adulthood. But now studies are finding that children can show signs of empathy and concern from a very early age.
For example, a study by psychologists Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, Ph.D., Marian Radke-Yarrow, Ph.D., and Robert King, Ph.D. observed children whose parents were hurt somehow — either physically (e.g. father having a bad headache) or emotionally (e.g. mother received bad news and was crying). They discovered that even very young children had a pretty well-developed sense of empathy.

So now they have real evidence that even young children have a pretty well developed sense of empathy.

Stupid!! The evidence exists in every child that was ever born. You’d have to surmise that scientists lack any kind of useful people skills (including the ability to empathise) if it’s taken them several centuries of research to uncover the easily observable fact that children do in fact have empathetic skills.

Next comes the What Can Parents Do? section. To their credit they have bought up the issue of modelling and it’s supreme importance in the scheme of things but…

They also want you to praise your child for showing empathy.

Stupid! Other scientific research has shown that praising a child for any task or action replaces their already existing intrinsic motivation with ex-trinsic motivation and basically they lose interest in doing whatever it is you have praised them for. They will still do it of course, but only if you are around to praise them for it.

Next they deal with Effects of the Outside World. This includes advice about monitoring TV and movies which is undoubtedly a good idea. Unfortunately it also advises parents to give their kids books to read that ‘promote compassionate behaviour’ and to educate them about famous altruists by taking them to museums.

Huh? Alright, it’s not stupid but it is very, very lame. If that’s the best way we’ve got for getting to our kids then we’ve already lost.

The article ends on a good note by pointing out that none of the approaches they’ve suggested will work unless there is a pre-existing ‘indestructible link between parent and child’.

But then they don’t tell us how to make the link indestructible.

They’ve just mentioned the most important aspect of bringing up an emotionally healthy child and then they drop the ball and forget to mention specifics.

The truth is they probably don’t know. Since we’re not allowed to mention co-sleeping, long term breastfeeding, non-coercive parenting, home schooling or the idea of picking up a crying baby in the mainstream there is little chance they were going to go there. The concept of non-coercive parenting, which all those issues contribute to, is probably the most dangerous concept of all to the establishment since they rely on parents beginning the work of breaking in children and disconnecting them emotionally from other people. In actual fact society in it’s current state couldn’t exist unless efforts were made to destroy empathy in children.

The reason the article mentioned this disconnect issue but couldn’t go anywhere useful with it is, as discussed in Disciplined Minds, that the professionals and scientists consulted in this article will be incapable of coming up with anything that will produce a healthy child unless it doesn’t conflict with the first priority of meeting the needs of the people who run our society.

Another irony in this is that we hold scientists up to be the most priestly members of our society. They’re people we go to for advice and yet they aren’t allowed to use empathy or people skills in their work. In fact they often display a very poor ability to cope with social situations themselves. How on earth are they going to tell us anything really useful, like how to be happy and fulfilled? Or how to build connections between people and how to build genuine community?

The only ‘scientist’ I’ve found who knows how to build community, M Scott Peck, learned his stuff by combining science and religion – to howls of outrage on both sides I might add – but not from normal people, who buy his books in droves.

The other problem with scientists (And I’ll have more to say about this issue later) is that their position at the top of the tree and the corresponding arrogance that comes with it only serves to further compound their blindness of what’s important

It should be no surprise though, that in civilisation we should revere the very worst state of the human condition. Cold emotionless scientists serve ‘growth’ and ‘progress’ very well, but they are unlikely to do anything good for us normal people.

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One comment

  1. […] me about scientists and childhood empathy (amongst other things) I can reccomend my old post;  Stupid Stupid Stupid Scientists (an objective assessment of what they can teach us about raising kid…. (Obviously been struggling with an excess of sarcasm for some time […]



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