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Why We Treat Others as We Have Been Treated

Research reveals a twist on the Golden Rule.

Key points

  • Parents' interpersonal strengths, such as kindness, love, and social intelligence, matter for nurturing these same strengths in their children.
  • People learn through first-hand experience. When people recall someone who was kind to them, they are kinder toward strangers, research shows.
  • Instead of punishing children to reinforce good behavior, parents can set limits in ways that prioritize children's experiences and empathy.

"We do as we have been done by.” —John Bowlby, A Secure Base (1988)

Family lore tells a paradoxical story of my grandmother: When other children came over to play with my mother and her siblings, my grandmother would fix them peanut butter sandwiches—the crusts delicately removed from the bread for “the guests” but inevitably left on for her own children.

The message served up with those peanut butter sandwiches was, this is how we ought to treat guests in our home, but also: guests are worthy of kindness, but you are not. In many ways, my grandmother was a role model of 1950s-era generosity in her community, sometimes taking in children whose parents were absent or struggling. Yet within her own family, she was often critical and withholding. The kindness that she modeled to others and instructed her children to emulate was not ultimately what they experienced—kindness was seen but not felt.

Tim Mossholder/Unsplash
Research suggests that we pay forward the care we receive
Source: Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

One of the most important things we’ve learned from research on child development is a twist on the Golden Rule: We often treat others the way we ourselves were treated. Tracing the family line further back, my grandmother had endured great unkindness herself, having been placed in an orphanage by her own mother and later adopted by an aunt and uncle who showed her little warmth or care.

We now know that trauma experienced in childhood is transmitted intergenerationally, but so is family strength and resilience. Parents’ empathy specifically for their child has been linked to children’s secure attachment; secure attachment, in turn, is shown to support youth's own developing capacity for empathy. Both fathers’ and mothers’ interpersonal strengths—including kindness, love, and social intelligence—matter for nurturing these same strengths in the next generation of children and adolescents.

The Power of Experience

“[O]ne generation full of deeply loving parents would change the brain of the next generation, and with that, the world” —Charles Raison

So much of what we learn as children—and adults—is experience-dependent. First-hand experience, especially when repeated over time, literally shapes the brain and nervous system, with downstream consequences for the way we engage with the world around us, deal with emotions, and behave socially.

  • We don’t learn to walk by being told to walk; we learn to walk by experiencing walking.
  • We don’t learn to love by being instructed to love; we learn to love by experiencing love.
  • We don’t learn to calm down (regulate) by being told to “calm down!”; we learn to calm down by experiencing being calmed (co-regulation).
  • We don’t learn to respect others by being told to respect others; we learn to respect others by experiencing ourselves and others being respected.
  • We don’t learn kindness by being told to be kind; we learn kindness by experiencing kindness in our darkest moments (an experience that some have called grace).

This transforms one of the key questions about raising kids: Perhaps we should ask not how to teach our children kindness, but how we want the children in our lives to experience kindness from us?

Humphrey Muleba/Unsplash
Human children learn kindness by experiencing it first-hand.
Source: Humphrey Muleba/Unsplash

Empathic Discipline

On this logic, we can’t punish, spank, shame, or guilt kids into being kind, empathic people. For example, though spanking and physical discipline are common ways that parents enforce “good behavior,” decades of evidence across multiple contexts and cultures demonstrates that this typically backfires. Children who experience corporal punishment are at increased risk for anxiety and depression, behavior problems, and struggles with substance use as adults. If we want to raise kind, respectful kids, we have to show our kids kindness and respect—and to model these traits toward others.

This doesn’t mean abandoning limits, boundaries, or discipline—it means transforming how we set limits. Empathic discipline “prioritizes valuing and understanding [children’s] experiences and negative feelings that give rise to misbehavior, sustaining positive relationships… and working with [children] within trusting relationships to improve behavior,” according to Okonofua and colleagues.

The benefits of empathic discipline extend beyond the home: In a field study of 1,682 middle school students, a brief program to encourage teachers to use empathic discipline halved student suspension rates, bolstered teacher-student relationships, and increased student respect.

Pay It Forward

But does experiencing others’ kindness really cause us to be kinder? In laboratory experiments, simply calling to mind a person who showed us kindness in a moment of need can elicit increases in our own empathy and help toward others.

It’s not just quid-pro-quo or reciprocity (you do something nice for me and I do something nice to you)—the research shows that recalling someone who cared for us makes us kinder to people we’ve never met, and even reduces prejudice and aggressive behavior toward out-group members. Children as young as 4 years old who received help while playing a game were subsequently more likely to share with another child, possibly motivated by feelings of gratitude for the person who helped them. We don’t just repay kindness; we pay it forward.

Chayene Rafaela/Unsplash
As early as preschool, children who receive help are more likely to share with others, motivated by gratitude.
Source: Chayene Rafaela/Unsplash

Scale It Up

If these ideas are scaled up, they have the power to transform harmful systems. If we want to create a kinder, more just society, we might start with policies that ensure kinder treatment of kids (and better support for their caregivers). This means reimagining our immigration, education, justice, and foster care systems around compassion and support, not punishment. It also means reckoning with historical and present-day forms of oppression and trauma that have unequal impacts on Black, Indigenous, and immigrant families. Science tells us that experiences of kindness in childhood have long-term, biological, intergenerational effects on development; our parenting and political systems should reflect the science.

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Beeler-Duden, S., & Vaish, A. (2020). Paying it forward: The development and underlying mechanisms of upstream reciprocity. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 192, 104785.

Cassidy, J., Stern, J. A., Mikulincer, M., Martin, D. R., & Shaver, P. R. (2018). Influences on care for others: Attachment security, personal suffering, and care recipient characteristics. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44, 574–588.

Gershoff, E. T., Goodman, G. S., Miller-Perrin, C. L., Holden, G. W., Jackson, Y., & Kazdin, A. E. (2018). The strength of the causal evidence against physical punishment of children and its implications for parents, psychologists, and policymakers. American Psychologist, 73(5), 626–638.

Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2001). Attachment theory and intergroup bias: Evidence that priming the secure base schema attenuates negative reactions to out-groups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(1), 97–115.

Okonofua, J. A., Paunesku, D., & Walton, G. M. (2016). Brief intervention to encourage empathic discipline cuts suspension rates in half among adolescents. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(19), 5221–5226.

Schofield, T. J., Conger, R. D., & Neppl, T. K. (2014). Positive parenting, beliefs about parental efficacy, and active coping: Three sources of intergenerational resilience. Journal of Family Psychology, 28(6), 973–978.

Stern, J. A., Borelli, J. L., & Smiley, P. A. (2015). Assessing parental empathy: A role for empathy in child attachment. Attachment & Human Development, 17, 1–22.

Stern, J. A., Costello, M. A., Kansky, J., Fowler, C., Loeb, E., & Allen, J. P. (2021). Here for you: Attachment and the growth of empathic support for friends in adolescence. Child Development.

Wilkinson, A., Laurore, J., Maxfield, E., Gross, E., Daily, S., & Keating, K. (2021). Racism creates inequities in maternal and child health, even before birth. State of Babies Yearbook: 2021. Zero to Three.

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