Giving may be Part of Our Survival Instinct
  Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

 Thanksgiving is not just about thanking, it's also about giving.  The propensity to give may be "wired" in our brains.  As we start growing up, the propensity for giving can be further developed or stifled by significant others.  I can never forget when I gave a bunch of candies to my two-year old nephew and it understandably thrilled his total being.  But what he did next took me by surprise.  He straight away went to his sister's bed who was taking a nap at the time.  He grabbed as many candies as his little hand could hold and put them under the pillow of his sleeping sister.  Only then he sat down to enjoy a candy himself.  My little nephew performed this act of giving without anybody's prompting.  

When I was six, one day my ten-year-old brother came in from outside beaming with joy.  He had found an "anna" (Indian currency) lying in the street.  He invited me to come with him to the sweetshop round the corner.   As we came to the shop, he offered to buy any sweets I fancied.  In those days, one could buy a lot of sweets with an anna.  I would never forget the joy I felt over this generous act of my brother.  He bought me whatever I wanted and I shared it with him.  We couldn't tell anyone at home about this because those kinds of sweets were regarded as unhealthy at our home and we would have gotten a big lecture about eating that "junk."      
Child-development researchers say that giving and helping others stem from empathy, a trait that is almost unique to human beings.  Empathy in brief is the ability to feel and "know' what someone else is experiencing.  In this article I will discuss how empathy develops and what parents can do to encourage it.  

The proof of rudimentary empathy is present even in infants.   If one baby cries, another baby within the hearing range, also starts crying.  We used to think that it was the noise that triggered the crying, but now we know that infants cry far less from other types of noises (even the louder noises) than when they hear another infant crying.  It is definitely the sound of another fellow-being in distress that triggers the baby's crying.    
The sympathetic crying reflex of an infant is a precursor to empathy which is the ability to feel the distress or joy of another fellow being and react as if it is one's own.  Empathy made it possible for human beings to evolve as hunting and farming groups against circumstances that must have threatened their survival on many occasions.  Empathy allows us to move beyond mere survival to helping our fellow beings.  Because of empathy, we can understand other people's feelings, wants, and needs.  We then try to offer them help according to their feelings, wants, and needs.  Empathy creates in us the sense, "I am like you, and you are like me."  The empathetic thought motivates us to act, "Had I been in your place, I would've liked someone to help me out.  So, I'll do for you what I would've liked someone to do for me."    

 Babies before their second birthday, try to help others in distress, for example, by offering their teddy or asking their own mother to help.  By fourth or fifth birthday, children can understand the social situations that can cause others distress.  Parents can encourage or discourage empathy by their own behavior.  Parents who are warm and habitually empathize with their child cause an increase in his or her empathy.  When parents habitually ask their child, "How would you have felt if someone else did it (or said that) to you?" they help the child to later ask that question to himself or herself.     

 Making harsh and heartless statements about others even about those you are angry with may suppress your child's empathy and teach him or her to be callous to others.  If your children act in a hurtful way towards others, just getting mad and punishing them may teach them to not do the same thing again, but it won't increase their ability to empathize with others.  For that purpose, when your child acts in a hurtful manner, clearly state the consequences of that behavior for others.    

 Make it a habit to discuss emotions with your children, theirs, yours, and of others.  It's a pity that we often avoid to talk about our emotions and feelings from our children.  Also, don't be shy of expressing your positive emotions in front of your children. The only emotion many parents demonstrate is of anger and then they wonder why their children are "hateful" or "mean" to them.  

 Set an example of giving of yourself to others as children best learn from an example.  Remember everybody always has something to give to others.  Louis Fillmore once said, "Those who think they have nothing to give, should remember that they can always give of themselves and they can always render some kind of service, even if it be nothing more than a few words of cheer."  Mother Teresa and Princess Diana set an extraordinary example of giving themselves to inspire us to feel the pain of everyone in distress.      

file: empathy 11/18/97 index: self-development, empathy.

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