Science Stories Weigh in on Babies’ Brains and Dickish Responses to Child Tragedies

Science Stories Weigh in on Babies’ Brains and Dickish Responses to Child Tragedies June 21, 2016

Arm in armTwo fantastic stories about children and science hit newsstands yesterday (and by that I mean that someone sat at a computer terminal and uploaded them to the Internet… so, there goes that expression.)

Anyway, one of the stories weighed in on the “nurture-nature” debate in relation to baby brains; and another explored the apparent decline in empathy among Americans (or all humans?) as illustrated by dickish responses to recent child tragedies.

Here’s a summary.

1. “The Complex Lives of Babies,” (Atlantic, June 20)

We’ve all heard the jokes about how parents can screw up royally when their kids are toddlers because the kids will never remember anything before age 5 anyway, right? Yeah… about that.

Turns out, according to science, our parenting matters most — or at least a whole lot — during the first few years. Citing a new documentary called The Beginning of Life (now streaming on Netflix), the Atlantic points out that environment has an enormous impact on babies’ physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. Instead of infants being born as “blank slates,” filmmaker Estela Renner said, they are “little scientists exploring the word” — enabled almost entirely by their parent’s love, attention and support.

It’s pretty well established that children with high self-esteem who feel loved and supported are willing to try new things, are more likely to stay in school and are likely to be healthier, among a mountain of other benefits.

But when babies don’t have adults who engage with them, pathways in the brain that form a child’s “frame” can disintegrate. Similarly, when babies see bad behavior, say their parents fighting, they are more likely to think that behavior is the appropriate way to resolve a conflict because it’s what they know.

In other words, as I read it, how parents respond to the typical toddler challenges (and meltdowns!) have everything to do how children’s brains will function down the line.

Even preschoolers who shout “no” at tired parents are testing the supportive boundaries of their environments. Where people often suggest that toddlers, given their frenetic tendencies, have trouble paying attention, in reality, they have trouble not paying attention. Everything piques their senses, from the sight of a passing car, to the soft fur of a dog, to the sizzle bacon makes when it hits a hot pan. They need help processing, but also the physical and mental space to take it all in.

Of course, it’s pretty hard for parents to guide a child’s development if they’re not around to do it, the Atlantic (pointedly) mentions.

Right now, the United States is one of the only countries that does not offer paid maternity leave and few fathers are able to take paternity leave, meaning many babies often spend just a few waking hours with their parents. A 2013 Pew Research Center report found that in dual-income households, mothers spend about 12 hours per week on childcare, where fathers spend only about seven. And while no one in the film is criticizing working parents, the documentary does point out that parents who are able to cultivate strong relationships with their children are ultimately helping shape more productive adults. “That love is an important part of the economy,” said the economist James Heckman.

Pretty powerful stuff, right?

Now, onto the next one.

2. “Child Tragedies Reveal Empathy Decline” (Live Science, June 20)

Now, in this super-fascinating story, Live Science asks the question: “Is parenting shame on the rise and empathy taking a dive?”

Research says maybe so. The brain is wired for empathy, but it’s also wired for moral judgments. And some facets of modern American culture may push people away from the former and toward the latter.

The whole conversation was brought on because of that Florida alligator attack in which a 2-year-old boy was grabbed while walking on the edge of a lagoon, pulled underwater and drowned while his horrified parents tried desperately, and in vain, to save him. While most people voiced compassion for the family, some took to social media to be heartless jerks about it — blaming the parents for not being more careful, pointing out things like Florida has alligators, duh, what did they expect? You know, typical a-hole stuff.

Melissa Fenton, a writer for the parenting site Scary Mommy, wrote a plea for compassion on Facebook, arguing that in the past, child-in-peril stories engendered support, not judgment. [5 Ways to Foster Self-Compassion in Your Child]

“We now live in a time where accidents are not allowed to happen. You heard me. Accidents, of any form, in any way, and at any time, well, they just don’t happen anymore,” Fenton wrote. “Why? Because BLAME and SHAME.”

Emile Bruneau, a cognitive scientist and visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, told Live Science that humans are easily distracted from empathy these days.

“[Empathy] can motivate us. It can bring us to tears and motivate us to great action of altruism,” Bruneau said. “But it’s also incredibly flexible. We can feel a great amount of empathy for someone and something, but then we can turn around and feel no empathy at all for someone else.”

For instance, people might feel empathy for a dead or endangered child, and this emotion might lead them to feel anger and aggression toward the parents they perceive as being at fault, Bruneau said. People also prefer to apply empathy to their own in-groups, and tend not to feel as much empathy for out-groups.

“That can be across any boundary,” Bruneau said. “It’s one of the curious things about humans. We can distinguish in-group and out-group across any arbitrary boundary we decide.”

This is incredibly important — not just in relation to parenting groups but religious groups (as many of you know from personal experience!), racial groups, ethnic groups, political groups, you name it. It’s hard not to be reminded of racist Donald Trump’s dumb wall. Or rapist Brock Turner’s dumb defense.

Sadly, generational research suggests that these anecdotes may illustrate an actual decline in empathy, although it’s difficult to measure how much.

A study published in 2011 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review found a decline of 48 percent in college students’ scores on empathic concern, a measure of feelings of sympathy, tenderness and compassion for others. There was also a 34 percent decline in perspective-taking, the intellectual tendency to imagine another’s point of view.

Interestingly, as the story points out, some of our callous parental judginess may go hand in hand with improvements in safety here in the good ol’ USA.

According to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, the rate of deaths for children under the age of 4 has dropped from 1,418.8 deaths per 100,000 in 1907 to 28.6 deaths per 100,000 in 2007…. This means fatal childhood accidents are rarer than ever.

Rarer, yes, but as devastating to parents as ever.

The thing is, accidents happen to us all. No parents intends to put their kids in danger. And, usually, they haven’t done anything egregious. They just, you know, made a bad call. They sized up the situation wrong. They fucked up. We all do it. Every single day, we do it. But our little missteps don’t end badly. Or they do end badly, but our kids don’t get hurt. Or our kids do get hurt but it doesn’t make the news.

The point is this: Empathy — it costs nothing; it’s insanely valuable; and, when we share it, everyone benefits.

So why are we always holding ours back from those who need it most?

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