In the Garden of Good and Evil

From altruism to violent conflict.

Caring and Optimal Functioning in Children and Adults

Socialization and experience: A note on established and creative practices

How do children become caring people, and also people who function optimally in the world; people who care about others’ welfare and helps others, and are also effective in their lives, fulfilled emotionally and ultimately satisfied with their lives. There are some well established, but also less known and creative socialization practices that contribute to these goals.

To see the world as benevolent and have confidence in themselves, children need warmth, affection, nurturance. These can be provided physically, or verbally, and most importantly by responding to children’s needs—leading children to feel nurtured and loved.

Children also need guidance and discipline. Parents and teachers have to transmit important values, and lead children to act on them. As Diana Baumrind showed in her impressive studies, doing this in an authoritarian manner, laying down rules, often harshly, does not contribute to the results I am focusing on. But what she called authoritative child rearing, being both firm and responsive to children, does so.

An important way to promote caring and optimal functioning is to guide children to engage in actions that benefit others, in the home, and in the outside world. My research has shown that children who are led to do engage in helpful activities become more helpful. Other research suggests that it is important that children are not led to do busy work, but can genuinely contribute by their actions to others’ well being, even if in small ways. Guiding children to help people who don’t belong to their family, or religious or ethnic group, who are “others,” can expand caring to all people. Engagement in helpful activities fosters benevolence, an image of oneself as a person who helps others, and a feeling of effectiveness. It also develops the capacity to notice others’ needs, and importantly, the tendency to act rather than be passive. This action tendency can expand into other realms of life as well.  

There are many ways to promote empathy, and a feeling responsibility for other people’s welfare—and through that being a responsible person in general. More effective than setting rules about helping is pointing out to children the consequences of their actions on other people, on others’ physical and emotional well being. While more research has focused on pointing out the negative consequences of harmful actions, in my research I found that pointing out the positive effects of benevolent, helpful actions, especially when it is done as children engage in such actions, contributes to later helping.  The example of adults can have powerful effects. Adults who show empathy for the child, as well as for other people, and also act on their empathy, will generate empathy and helping in children.

An unusual approach was developed by “The roots of empathy” project. A mother and infant come to a classroom 9 times, with an instructor meeting with the children both before and after each visit. The infant lies on a green cloth in the middle. The children observe the interaction between infant and mother, the instructor fostering empathy by helping children identify the feelings of the infant and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. The children can also hold the infant, sometimes with powerful emotional effects as a young boy who has had a difficult life, with neglect and perhaps abuse, holds and walks around with an infant, feeling affection from and for the infant.  Evaluation studies show positive effects, such as decrease in bullying.

Another unusual approach focuses on children learning about their families. Children who know their family’s history, events and people in the family, are better able to resist challenges, are more resilient. Children who are exposed to the story of the family, which makes them feel more part of it as a community, are emotionally better off.

Engaging with the past is especially important in families that have a history of victimization. In some Holocaust survivor families, and most likely families that survived other horrors, the children know that terrible things have happened. But members of the older generation often do not talk about their painful experiences, and “knowing but not knowing” has adverse psychological consequences on children. Without overdoing it, talking to children about the painful past—but also about survival and how people have moved forward in life—is of benefit to children.

Good practices of child rearing can follow certain principles, but also benefit from creativity and ingenuity. They help fulfill children’s needs for security, connection, identity, effectiveness, autonomy and understanding the world and their own and their family’s place in it. They also help children develop ways to later fulfill these needs in their lives in constructive ways, even in the face of the complex realities that all of us face. 

The adults who guide children these ways shape themselves along the way. The practices I described only partially arise from an adult’s own life experience. They also have to be created day by day, in the  complex flow of life. As adults develop habits of optimal child rearing, they learn by doing, they evolve, they become the values they express and the actions they engage in—more caring and optimally functioning people.    

The most relevant work of Ervin Staub to this material is the book, The psychology of good and evil: Why children, adults and groups help and harm others. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. See also the book chapter, Staub, E. (2005). The roots of goodness. Available at www.ervinstaub.com under downloads. A new book, The roots of goodness in individuals and groups: inclusive caring, moral courage, altruism born of suffering, active bystandership and heroism, is expected to be published by Oxford University Press in the Spring of 2014.

Ervin Staub, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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