LAST year, several articles were written on bullying, especially on how to stop bullying through prevention campaigns. While it is a noble idea to have programmes to create awareness about the effects of bullying, one must understand why empathy, a basis for caring, is essential in life.
Let us begin by educating people on developing empathy before caring for others.
According to American psychologist Martin Hoffman, empathy is congruent with caring.
As empathy helps in the development of prosocial behaviour in a child, it plays a crucial role in the development of altruistic concern or caring for others. Children with problematic behaviour will benefit from this because empathy reduces hostility and aggressiveness.
So, when does one develop empathy? Does it exist when we are born or develop as we grow up? Researchers argue that empathy is innate and needs to be developed.
Hoffman said there are five empathy-arousing modes. Three of them are primitive, automatic and involuntary, which are important for rousing empathy, while the other two are more cognitive-based. These five empathy modes progress according to age.
When a child is born, the first empathy-arousing mode is “mimicry”, which is akin to imitation. The infant imitates its mother’s facial expressions. Another example that empathy is innate and affective is that when a baby hears another baby cry, it will start crying, too, as an element of empathic distress.
The second empathy-arousing mode is “classical conditioning”, which develops in preverbal children.
Apparently, children receive feelings of distress as conditioned responses if they observe someone in distress. For example, when a mother feels sad or anxious, her anxiousness may be transmitted to the child and therefore the child becomes distressed.
The third empathy-arousing mode is direct association. Direct association refers to situations where a child’s experiences evoke feelings in him if he connects or associates with a victim’s situation.
The fourth and fifth empathy-arousing modes involve cognitive aspects that are “mediated association” and “role-taking”.
In “mediated association”, language plays an important factor.
Verbal messages from a distressed person must be semantically processed and decoded, which act as a mediator between the distressed person and
Therefore, the observer who decodes the person’s message and relates it to his experience will respond empathically to the distressed person.
In role-taking, an advanced level of cognitive processing takes place, where a child puts himself in another person’s shoes and imagines what he feels.
Researchers have found that making children imagine a victim’s distress will arouse more empathic feeling than making them observe the victim’s distress.
In enforcing role-taking, teacherscan boost empathy in students through subjects such as Moral Education. Students are made to understand the perspectives of other people by making them act out roles, either through role playing or drama.
Researchers believe that empathy training in the form of role-taking can cultivate students’ cognitive, emotional and social development. This is one measure to prevent one from becoming a bully.
Many child-training programmes related to empathy concentrate on role-taking or perspective-taking skills.
Empathy-training programmes for bullies or potential bullies can be carried out as empathy can be nurtured with training and attitude. It is not only the schools’ responsibility to prevent bullying but also education officials, parents, government and private organisations, community and society.
After all, the saying goes, “It takes a whole village to educate a child”.
DR ILHAVENIL NARINASAMY
Bukit Baru, Melaka