One of my clear memories as a nine year old kid is being sat on the first row at Sunday School having being asked to close our eyes and imagine Jesus standing in front of us. I must have thought it was quite a nice thought because my face broke into enough of a smile for the Sunday School teacher to growl to the whole class “Well, Lucy obviously thinks Jesus is funny because instead of praying she is laughing!”
I was struck with shame at the teacher’s words. I can sense even now the pound of my heart in my ears drums, feel the red sweeping up my neck to flush out my freckles, the determination not to let my lip wobble. I was the minister’s kid. Blonde haired and sweet looking but fiercely mischievous. I’d already been asked to leave the choir. The teacher probably shouldn’t be blamed for taking my smile as an obtuse grin. I felt deeply misunderstood but no way was I about to show it.I have been shown a lot of kindness during a lifetime at church too. Roast dinners cooked for us while our parents set up the evening service. The incredible gift of Hungry Hippos one Christmas when we couldn’t really count on many presents at all. One church-Aunty taught me to cross stitch (and then completed my Happy Mother’s Day piece when the week before the big day I had only done the H.) Other grown-ups who took me under their wing, and still to this day send me birthday cards across the oceans, tracking me down at various addresses to let me know I am still in their thoughts.
So I felt a lot of things when I read the recent news about how religious kids have been found to be meaner than their non-religious friends.
Instances of my own shaming and punishment at church sprang to mind. And yet so did all the kindnesses. And the unavoidable blueprint I have in my mind for wanting to tackle injustices and inequality.
The main thing that struck me as I read about the research was this is about parenting, and general adult-child relationships, not religion.
There is ONE THING (and probably other things too) that makes our kids mean. And it sure is found in the church. But it is also found in many non-religious families. And schools. And in public spaces.
And I care to address it because we all need to face it. If the recent research makes us all think: religious = mean kids, non-religious = kind kids then we have been led up a wildly incorrect and dangerous path.
We need to talk about empathy for starters. Empathy, seeking to understand another’s feelings, putting ourselves in their shoes, is the only genuine foundation for morality. Being able to empathise is key to stopping childhood mean-ness and is the foundation for a lifetime of kindness.
The one thing that short circuits the development of a child’s empathy? The one thing that makes kids mean?
Not experiencing empathy in childhood.
Basic, huh? But there is groundbreaking work being done right now that is clearly revealing that in order to become empathetic, we have to experience empathy.
I first heard this concept at a talk by psychologist Robin Grille, who reckons all parents should see themselves as “empathy farmers”… like nurturing the cherry tomatoes in our garden we can grow or stunt a child’s “empathy centre” according to how we treat them.
And, contrary perhaps to what some institutional religion teaches (but not what many religious texts actually teach) it isn’t taught through teaching lessons in morality, or shaming, or punishing.
It is taught by kindness.
By putting ourselves in our children’s shoes, trying to get what is going on for them, meeting their emotions and being their in the experiences with kind hearts, their empathy centres in their brains begin to flourish, creating new neural pathways and literally growing brain cells whose job is to make us kind.
Mind = blown.
The last couple of years has seen a huge increase in knowledge around brain development and emotional intelligence, studies exploring the way empathy develops through stuff like our right supramarginal gyrus, which, frankly, sounds like something out of Dr Seuss. It is all covered in this absolutely BRILLIANT video of Robin Grille talking about the peace code we have in our brain, activated by kindness.
“Our brains’ empathy centres grow – or fail to grow – according to how we are nurtured.”
“The brain of a child grows in the way that child is treated. So in an empathic environment the brain of this child grows in one way. But in an environment that is harsh, punitive and cold, the same child’s brain would grow quite differently. So, our early childhood relationships grow our brain. The shape our behaviour and that is how we create the kind of societies that we are going to have.”
And the thing is, and perhaps this explains the research about religious kids being meaner, a lots of things get in the way of us treating our children with empathy.
I see lots of these amongst the church. (And in non-religious homes too.)
Teaching a lesson. Often, instead of attempting to understand what needs a child might be expressing when they do something that seems mischievous, we are tempted to launch straight in with a lesson in morality. We fail to listen, we fail to create a space for our child to be heard, for their emotional and physical needs to get met.
Punishing and shaming. We tend to err on the side of punitive. In some countries – I’m eyeballing the States – a religious upbringing is synonymous with a childhood filled with violence (which must feel like an utter slap in the face to God) with the popularity of Christian books advocating physical assault and even in more progressive societies, the genuine fear that children won’t grow up to be kind leads people to treat children harshly. The very thing that will lead them to be unkind. Gah.
Cheering up/ giving a positive spin. And then there is the nice, cheery face of Christianity, and the general sense that kids should “look on the bright side”… which is actually an empathy blocker. It is SO easy to do. “Oooof! At least you only grazed ONE knee!” But it is a missed opportunity to simply be there and actively hear our child’s pain.
This list of empathy blockers from Robin Grille’s Heart to Heart parenting book is a bit of an eye opener.
In some ways raising kind children is simple. We treat them kindly. We don’t call out grins we think are inappropriate, we don’t shame them into better behaviour. We listen to them, assume the best of them.
And in other ways it isn’t. Because in order to give empathy, we also need to be receiving it! We are far more likely to be pulling out all those empathy blockers when our own emotional needs are not met. If parents need to do one thing to parent more kindly, it is to find a friend, or a whole tribe of friend who we can be honest with and who can encourage and support us. (This can sometimes be easier said than done, hey?)
We haven’t been a part of a church community for a couple of years, one of the reasons being that we struggle with how it sits so comfortably within a archaic control paradigm, and y’know, homophobia etc. But we truly believe that the bible actually teaches kind and empathetic parenting, and that people of faith should be championing this new, peaceful vision of adult – child relationships. (I wrote a letter to the Pope about that, actually.)
More than anything though, let’s not be distracted by the research from what is the real gamechanger for kindness in childhood – neuroscience is helping us out big time here. Central to developing kindness in children, from any home, religious or not, is that they experience empathy. All of us can make that happen.