A note from Gordon…
I am thoroughly engaged in putting the final touches to the upcoming seminar on empathy, scheduled to be filmed on July 25, 2020. This will be the third Saturday seminar that we are doing in this format, live-streamed from our basement studio. It strikes me that all three seminars are about feelings in some way, which makes perfect sense to me in retrospect.
The first seminar, Keeping Children Safe in a Wounding World, was about hurt feelings; the second seminar, Reaching Troubled Kids, was on missing feelings; and this third seminar, The Natural Roots of Empathy, is on the pivotal role of feelings in developing human virtues. All three angles on feelings seem necessary to get the whole picture and what an amazing picture it is. There is no doubt that feelings are what make us fully human and humane – a revelation that counters and corrects over four centuries of thinking about feeling that still persists in the major working paradigms of the day.
Back to empathy. We all want our children to be kind and considerate, sensitive to the needs of others. But how do we get there? Is it a matter of inculcating values? training social skills? regulating emotions? rewarding right actions? Is it something that is learned or does it need to be developed? Are there things that we should be doing as parents and teachers to get the results we are looking for? Are there pitfalls we should be concerned about in the process? Are there tell-tale signs when children are at risk for failing to develop empathy? The attachment-based developmental approach has much to say.
Our elevated concern regarding empathy is certainly understandable. Studies indicate that empathy is on the wane – quite significantly in fact – at least among our youth. So the sense of the world becoming a meaner place is well-founded. Secondly, the pressure on children to be socially sensitive and responsible has never been greater as they are being put in social settings earlier and earlier, with adults having less and less control over their social interactions.
This concern regarding empathy, in turn, seems to be driving a new wave of desperate socialization measures. We tend to be full of exhortations to our children to be nice, be kind, say sorry, don’t be mean, don’t be rude. We also have a whole set of programs available at school or at home to cultivate social sensitivity in our children. This would not be of concern if these efforts were simply futile or redundant in nature. But socialization that is developmentally premature, whether effective or futile in getting the desired behaviour, is far from harmless.
Empathy is one of those developmental virtues in which the seed looks nothing like the fruit that will result. In fact, empathy in its embryonic form is hardly recognizable for the rich potential it holds. As a result, we tend to run roughshod over its fledgling form, instead trying to shape actions into the ‘nice’ sort of behaviour we are looking for. The problem is that acting as if one is kind and loving is not the same as being kind and loving. And being ‘nice’ out of self-interest or for approval, is a neuroses that we should be saving children from, not inviting them to. As adults, we may get away with the hypocrisy that life often demands. As children, when we push them to act in ways that do not correspond with their feelings, we not only divorce them from themselves but sabotage the very development that would lead to the real thing. The relationship between spirit (that which moves us) and form (acceptable behaviour) is always a rather delicate matter in development, with dire implications if we do not get this right.
Premature socialization has always been our greatest temptation, developmentally speaking that is. The temptation is understandable for those who are ignorant of the developmental blueprint. But even for those who believe in the spontaneous unfolding of human potential, the long wait can test our patience. So it seems to me that for those who wish to trust in Nature to do its job and are willing to play midwife to this process, it would help to know how natural development is meant to unfold and what to be cognizant of. It would also help to know the signs of developmental readiness for social interaction that no longer needs to be scripted. Furthermore, we all need to realize when the embryonic form of empathy is missing, as such children are at risk for developing various troubling symptoms, including a bully response to neediness and vulnerability. In such cases, remedial measures are certainly in order, both at school and at home, and the sooner the better.
So in this seminar, we will look at the developmental blueprint for empathy as well as the signs of developmental readiness for unscripted social interaction. We will unpack the relationship between spirit and form so parents and teachers are better able to give the inner springs of action the lead in refining children’s behaviour. We will also be discussing the problems that stem from premature socialization. For those who are developmentalists at heart, this seminar should serve as a reminder of these basic tenets of faith in natural development and inform their role as midwives to Nature. For those unfamiliar with this approach, I would hope to make the case for giving the natural developmental process a chance.
I do look forward to sharing this material with those of you will be able to attend.