Reducing Violence by Educating for Empathy

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 fortunate135 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 persons 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 persons 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. Hoffmans 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 Weve 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.