Last month I wrote about fostering “prosocial behavior” in children, and described three theories of how it develops.
I said that, according to one theory, the ability to perceive and react to another’s distress—empathy—is hard-wired in humans. Researchers believe this because it can be observed in children as young as one year, too young to have been taught it.
Other research, however, suggests that very young children are not too young to be taught. They may be too young to be taught in words, but not too young too learn.
This research posits that a newborn’s concern for his or her own needs—for example, the crying of a hungry baby—provides the basis for learning to care for the needs of others. Its conclusion is that the way parents and caregivers respond, or whether they respond, to an infant’s cries teaches the infant whether or not individual needs and feelings matter to others.
If parents and caregivers respond when a baby cries, the child learns that they care about his or her needs, and begins to develop a capacity to perceive and respond to the needs of others. If parents and caregivers don’t respond, the child learns that his or her needs aren’t important, and extrapolates from it that no one’s needs and feelings are important.
In real life, few parents respond to an infant’s needs 100 percent of the time, and few ignore an infant’s needs 100 percent of the time. If this research is correct, it suggest that deliberately withholding care—“letting the baby cry it out”—may be teaching the infant to ignore feelings, both his or her own, and those of everyone else.
That idea seems to reflect an industrial approach to child-rearing, where everything is regulated and scheduled. Indeed, we associate this style most strongly with 19th-century Britain and Germany, during the industrial revolution.
Israeli kibbutzim had an extreme take on industrial child-rearing. It used to be the case that all children on a kibbutz lived together in a “children’s house” under the supervision of a few adults whose assigned job it was. Children would spend only a few hours a day with their parents, never at mealtimes or overnight.
Research on this communal child-rearing draws mixed conclusions. Although the attention of a trained metapelet (nanny) during the day was largely beneficial, the absence of responsive care at night, when “night guards” were fewer and less trained, seems to have been harmful. However, specific effects on empathy seem not to have been studied.
No kibbutz today has communal sleeping for children.