How Children Become Good Adults

Thursday, December 13, 2012

babies in strollers (Robert & Pat Rogers/flickr)

Decisions to act out of kindness, compassion, and concern confront us regularly in our lives. They vary in scale and impact, from the choice to hold the door to choosing to help someone in grave danger.

In moments of empathy, our emotions go a step further. Beyond sympathy, empathy allows us to share and experience the emotions of another.

When it comes to attributes of altruism, “prosocial behavior” allow us to assert our better selves. But prosocial behavior also raises the question of how we got to be this way in the first place. Were we taught? Or are we born this way?

Dr. Perri Klass is a primary care pediatrician and the author of a recent article in The New York Times, “Understanding How Children Develop Empathy.”


Dr. Perri Klass

Produced by:

Ellen Frankman

Comments [16]

chris from tx

At least he had access to a gun. He could have gotten desperate and made a bone and hurt more ppl.

Dec. 17 2012 12:43 PM
John A from community

Seems like we're coming out of a long stretch of the abused child in that the self was promoted over others for a generation or so. (Think: "Mean Girls", Snarkiness, Schadenfreude in popular culture, etc) Nice seeing the attention shifted elsewhere in this segment - to a remedy? Also liked hearing the segment preceded with words saying something like: 'this is your morality toolkit'. I see "unkerjay from WA" may agree. Now to read the other comments.

Dec. 13 2012 03:57 PM
Peggy McComb from portland or

When my son was a pre-adolescent, he began to express anger or annoyance in situations where I suspected he was feeling empathetic or sympathetic. I was astounded by this.
I began to explore it with him. He felt uncomfortable in response to what he saw in the world. He had no name for it. We explored the response, "I wish I could help that person." as a response that better described his discomfort. When he felt he could do nothing, he felt angry without another response to substitute.
we also discussed the concept of "blaming the victim"

Dec. 13 2012 01:52 PM
Hazel Wheeler from Portland, Oregon

I think the best way for parents to teach empathy is to model it themselves by reflective listening, paying attention and acknowledging that some things are painful for our children, even when we adults think it's not a big deal. We don't need to make their complaints all better, just let them know that we understand.

Dec. 13 2012 01:41 PM
Edwin Rutsch

May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

Dec. 13 2012 01:21 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

As I struggled to learn who I was and where I came from, I became more empathetic towards other people who struggled to learn who they were and where they came from and were unable to do so.

Dec. 13 2012 12:05 PM
stella from South Carolina

Having had training in human development for an Ed Masters, and having raised and trained animals for over 35 years,I know that even animals are born with empathy(observed many times), and its in varying degrees.
Like any potential ability, it ultimately depends on environment-raising, training, experiences exposed to...and also level of emotional maturity reached, that determines to what extent empathy is further developed. People with arrested emotional development, those more narcissistic, I think tend to have less empathy.
I wouldn't be surprised if various hormonal levels, such as oxytocin, have an effect, as well.

Dec. 13 2012 10:00 AM
anna from new your

Dear Ed,
Sorry to inform you but both the "philosophers" and their followers were products of your Christian "empathy" upbringing. It's a known fact, that die Kommendanten and Kommandantinnen would come home to celebrate your empathy idol's birth on break from their "emphatic" duties.
It's strange that you don't know that the Nazis weren't some aliens who descended on this bwonderful Christian land. Such a convenient ignorance.

Dec. 13 2012 09:58 AM
anna from new york

You, people, are confused. Babbling about bigotry, while promoting a perfect representative of one of the most bigoted "cultures' in the world (yes, Dickens)

Dec. 13 2012 09:49 AM
Linda from fort lauderdale, fl

When my son was at daycare, around two years old, his best little buddy was in "time out". My son sat with him the whole time (a scant couple of minutes but an eternity to a two year old). At 13, he continues to display similar actions... when he's not being a typical 13 year old boy.

Dec. 13 2012 09:48 AM
Ed from Larchmont

The philosophers in Germany before the Nazis argued that one should not feel empathy: that increases suffering from the one who is suffering to other people also. Misguided.

For a Christian, the teaching of empathy is seen on the Cross.

Don't children learn empathy from their parents example?

Dec. 13 2012 09:44 AM
anna from new york

Yes, I need illiterate actors' explanation of societies (or anything else).
Yes, Carnegie (or Mellon whomever he mentions) was a wonderful human being. Sure, only in the mind of illiterate actors. Yes, the societal problems start in the world of finance. Sure, only in the minds of illiterate actors.
What a barbaric conversation.

Dec. 13 2012 09:42 AM
B Sloan from Myrtle Beach, SC

Empathy is my then four year old son Philip running for his piggy bank during the Jerry Lewis Telethon in hopes that his money will help cure his friend Gregory who had muscular dystrophy. His 7 year old brother did the same. No prompting or comment from Mom was required.

Dec. 13 2012 09:41 AM
Barbara Sloan from Myrtle B

Empathy is my barely 4 year old son running for his piggy bank to give money to a Jerry Lewis telethon so it would help cure his friend Gregory, who had muscular dystrophy.

Dec. 13 2012 09:38 AM
anna from new york

This babbling about empathy is irritating. How can you teach children about empathy in a country of wrong values? In one of the most liberal states the governor is against raising of minimal wage (while his ... whatever approaches the victims with some Thanksgiving dinner - sure it will help people on minimal wage without any benefits) and the population loves, loves, loves the entire scheme.

Dec. 13 2012 09:27 AM
unkerjay from Puget Sound, WA

There's a school of thought that to get ahead requires a degree of dog eat dog mentality, to be a leader requires a degree of amorality, of psychopathy, a resistance to fragility (not to mention the "sand in the face - Charles Atlas" effect):

"The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success"

"Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder"

"The War Against Boys" (The Atlantic")

"Leadership is Amoral, or Why You Want Them On That Wall…" (Fistful of Talent)

We don't do a very good job of rewarding empathy. Subsequently we don't much value empathy.

Empathy isn't seen as being a prerequisite to success in life (personal or professional).

The phrase "bleeding heart liberal" supports the point. So, for that matter too, does, "right wing wacko" or "right wing extremist".

In war, I learned, that who one would consider an enemy to be killed was dehumanized as part of that process. Look at almost every conflict we've been in, and the associated derisive slang for the Japanese, the Germans, the Italians, middle eastern combatants.

Empathy's got an uphill battle against conventional "wisdom" (or lack thereof).

Dec. 13 2012 08:18 AM

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