Monday, February 4, 2013

Experience and empathy

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.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Do we need persecution?

A column last month by Paul Brandeis Raushenbush had a startling title: “Thank You Westboro Baptist Church.”

It was startling because Raushenbush is an outspoken liberal. Westboro Baptist is the extremely conservative church that, among other things, pickets military funerals. Its leader, Fred Phelps, stated that the Newtown killings were Divine retribution for gay rights.

Westboro has also picketed Jewish institutions, including Hebrew Union College and Brandeis University. Raushenbush, although an American Baptist minister, is of Jewish ancestry, the great-grandson of Justice Louis D. Brandeis (and of the famed “social gospel” preacher Walter Raushenbush).

So why is Raushenbush grateful to Westboro Baptist? One reason is that Westboro makes explicit what other groups, trying to seem less extreme, only imply: “This small church of no more than 40 people has created a vivid example of the logical conclusion of self-described ‘Bible-believing Christians’—they just haven't started stoning adulterers or seafood lovers. When Mike Huckabee and Bryan Fischer blame the Newtown shooting on banning school prayer, they place themselves along the continuum with Westboro Baptist Church.”

Another is that Westboro has achieved something that seemed impossible: unifying the country. “It has taken a crazy band of anti-gay zealots to bring us all together, and in this age of deep political, religious and social division, we can all thank them for that.”

This line of thought comes perilously close to the claim that the Jewish people has survived, not in spite of discrimination and persecution, but because of discrimination and persecution. In other words, that exclusion and bad treatment by non-Jews drive us together.

I really hope that being the subjects of persecution is not the only thing that binds us together. I’d like to think that other things, such as the love of Torah and the teachings of the Prophets, are more important to our collective psyche.

Sociologists have studied the forces that bring and hold groups together. Shared experiences and rituals are among the most important. These include secular activities. Think, for example, of Japanese auto companies where all employees sing the company song together at the start of each day.They include behaviors that we don’t always think of as rituals, such as wearing the team colors on game days.

You could say that it’s our worship rituals that have held the Jewish people together, and there is some truth to that. The need to pray in a minyan of ten adults keeps us from becoming hermits or other kinds of extreme individualists, and when we share rituals, we become stronger as a group.

Religious rituals, however, aren’t the whole story. All group activities within a community have a bonding effect. Rev. Connie Seifert, a Methodist minister in Corning, speaks evocatively of the church suppers of her childhood, which integrated children into the church community even before they were old enough to participate in Sunday services.


I’m inclined to think that all activities within the Jewish community strengthen us as a group, even those that have no religious content.

They have this effect, however, only to the extent that we participate in them. In a traditional community, religious services had a major role in binding us together; they still function that way, but because we are not all religious in the same ways, we also look to other events.

We don’t all have the same tastes in entertainment or education, either, so not every possible event will appeal equally to every community member. Nevertheless, participation in as many events as possible is good for the community and for our feeling of connectedness.

The program committee of our Jewish Center is experimenting this year with some programs that aren’t explicitly Jewish. Because Jewish life is central to our mission, our efforts in secular programming have been modest so far, but we think that they’re worthwhile.  We hope that participating in them helps everyone to feel more connected to one another.

One non-Jewish program that we didn’t schedule for this year was a hockey excursion. Instead, we’re hoping to set up a baseball program this summer. Go Pioneers!