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Reducing Violence by Educating for Empathy

by Myriam Miedzian


The issue of violence touches me in a very personal and profound way. I am a Holocaust child survivor. While my parents succeeded in getting our nuclear family out of Europe, other family members were not so fortunate—135 were murdered.

My interest in reducing violence resulted in Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking The Link Between Masculinity And Violence, first published in 1991. A major part of the book is devoted to concrete steps that society can take to begin to move away from violence.

Violent acts -- whether in wars, genocides, acts of terrorism, homicide or rape -- are predominantly committed by men. For the past 40 years, FBI statistics on homicide, the most accurately recorded violent crime, indicate that in every year 90 percent of homicides in the U.S. are committed by men.

In their article, The relation of empathy to aggressive and externalizing/antisocial behavior in the May 1988 Psychological Bulletin, researchers Paul A. Mayer and Nancy Eisenberg analyzed earlier studies by psychologist Seymour Feshbach and others that pointed to an inverse relationship between empathy and aggression. They concluded that “Empathic/sympathetic responding was negatively related to aggression and antisocial, externalizing behaviors…” Their conclusion -- stated without professional jargon -- is that if you are capable of feeling for another person, putting yourself in that person’s shoes, you are not likely to act violently against that person.

But empathy is routinely discouraged in boys. Traditional “masculinity” is identified with toughness, concern with dominance, emotional detachment, readiness to physical fights, callousness and an exploitative attitude toward women. Empathy -- which I define as the capacity for vicariously experiencing another person’s feelings, volitions or ideas-- has very different, even opposite, qualities. (For an in-depth study of empathy and its behavioral implication, see New York University psychology professor Martin L. Hoffman’s book released in 2000,Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice.)

Asking Questions About the Socialization of Boys

I began to ask how we can change the socialization of boys to decrease violence by moving away from the traditional concept of masculinity? How can we increase the capacity for empathy, caring and responsibility?

Some school programs have attempted to address this. One program that encourages these qualities does so by teaching child-rearing. I first observed classes in Philadelphia in the 1980s that used child-rearing as a focus of education. The Germantown Friends School developed a program called Educating Children for Parenting (ECP) and several inner city public schools had also adopted it.

Research in anthropology and sociology reveals that the absence of a father, or other caring, non-violent male – grandfather, uncle, “big brother” -- puts boys at higher risk of violence. The situation is aggravated in our society by media that fail to provide boys with positive male role models, churning out endless films, programs and video games filled with anti-social, reckless, violent "heroes."

It was clear to me from reading works about boys by educators such as Raphaela Best, author of We’ve All Got Scars, and interviewing social workers dealing with teenage boys, that most boys view an interest in babies as “girls’ stuff.” As Lee Willis, who runs a program for teenage fathers at a Philadelphia hospital put it, “they fear being perceived as effeminate by their peers if they push a baby carriage or hold their baby close.” Given my mindset, I was stunned by the boys’ enthusiasm for the child-rearing programs in Philadelphia.

The elementary school program centered on a parent bringing a baby or toddler to class once a month. Students asked questions of the parents and observed, and interacted with, the child, whose development is charted over time. Teachers provided information about psychological and physical needs of children at various ages. At the high school level, classes were similar to college child development courses. These courses develop empathy, reduce anti-social behavior, and increase pro-social behavior and social emotional understanding, as studies on the Roots of Empathy program in Canada later reaffirmed.

Other programs developed in the years since I first saw the parenting programs in Philadelphia. Shortly after the publication of Boys Will Be Boys, Prepare Tomorrows Parents formed. The group published a guide on how to establish and operate parenting programs, produced a video featuring various child-rearing programs and publicized the value of teaching child-rearing.

Still, the programs are often under funded, and since the classes are rarely mandatory, a small percentage of boys is likely to attend. Efforts to require child-rearing classes, pursued especially in Connecticut and California, so far have not succeeded.

Canada Steps Up to the Challenge

Canada, however, has made great strides. The Maytree Foundation in Toronto supported efforts to teach child-rearing. One result has been the Roots of Empathy program, which has reached 269,800 students in Canada since it was founded in 1996. The program is virtually identical to the Educating Children for Parenting program that I visited in the 1980s and described in Boys Will Be Boys.

Roots of Empathy has received positive evaluations from researchers at the University of British Columbia and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. In 2008 the program was one of three winners -- out of 362 entries from 39 countries -- of a Changemakers competition for programs that help youth at risk. Roots of Empathy has even been enthusiastically endorsed by his Holiness, the Dalai Lama. Buttressed by this record, it has succeeded in introducing a three-year pilot program in Seattle, Washington.

In the past 20 years, the good news is that there is a significant increase in fathers’ involvement in child-rearing. When fathers are involved in their sons’ daily care-- give them their bottles, change their diapers, take them out in their strollers for walks, and continue their daily involvement as the boys grows older -- needless to say, these boy will no longer view anything having to do with babies as “girls stuff.”

The bad news is that far too few U.S.schools have adopted parenting classes. In fact, some have been trimmed back or eliminated. The Philadelphia program, now called Educating Communities for Parenting, is struggling. Anita Kulick, President and CEO, said, “When “No Child Left Behind” became the law … many social emotional programs …were cut from the school day… .Teachers and administrators seemed to become more concerned with test scores rather than youth development.”

But the costs-benefits in preventing harm and reducing violence are tremendous, and these child-rearing programs deserve support.

May 18, 2010

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Myriam Miedzian is a former professor of philosophy. Her most recent book, He Walked Through Walls, written in her father’s voice, tells the story of how he survived three 20th century wars. She blogs frequently on Huffington Post. Website: www.myriammiedzian.com.

Also see "To Halt Emotional Abuse, French Law Teaches Bullies A Lesson" by Eleanor Bader in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "Three Habits of the Heart and Mind To Spark Cultural Awakening" by Arlene Goldbard in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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