Parenting: What makes kids mean?

10 November, 2015

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.

The one thing that makes kids mean

Spot my angelic self

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.

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  • Adele @ Circus Queen 10 November, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    Loved this post, Lucy. I had lots of feelings reading that piece as well. On the one hand, there is a lot of authoritarian parenting in churches that doesn’t sit well with me at all. On the other, the picture of Jesus that the Bible gives has informed my desire to raise children who are motivated by love not fear.

    • Lucy 10 November, 2015 at 9:20 pm

      Yes it is such a mixed picture. Christianity just now is such, such a combination of love and kindness and then exclusiveness and fear.

  • Katie 10 November, 2015 at 10:07 pm

    Hi Lucy, I’m so sorry for your experience. It sucks that often adults in positions of responsibility don’t fully understand the impact of their words. However, I’ve been part of the church community that we go to for the last 8 years, first as the youth worker and latterly as parents of 2. Our experience hasn’t always been positive but I think that is partly a generational thing. For many families the only older people in their children’s lives are grandparents and great grandparents. The relationship is very different when you’re an older person not related to a child and you feel they should be acting a certain way, I have always tried to advocate for any children I am responsible for and gently explain that actually it’s ok for children to make noise and have fun in church. It’s their place too after all. Having said that, my children have (for the most part) experienced love, kindness, understanding and belonging to a community. My son has been to church in a dress and people have told him how awesome he looks. Our church teaches that children are important and we don’t have a ‘traditional’ Sunday school (but I think it’d be hard to find a church that does now really) and although there aren’t loads of families we are welcome and supported. And the families that go to our church all parent in similar ways, maybe that makes it easier? I guess it’s quite liberal and inclusive, by no means perfect though. My children are only small but they are kind and gentle with people when they need that, they understand that life isn’t lovely all the time. We aren’t the only ’empathy farmers’ in their lives and that makes us grateful.

    Sorry this is a bit of a brain dump. You were pretty well balanced and said it wasn’t every religious parent and institution. And I think that it’s important to shout about the good things our church community does, there’s often a lot of moaning and judgment about churches.

    Thanks for making me think.

    • Lucy 10 November, 2015 at 10:21 pm

      Yeah, that’s so great 🙂 it sounds like a few of the churches we have been a part of too. I chose that memory as specific to the points I was making, not because it sums up my experience of church or why we don’t attend right now. Perhaps I didn’t make that clear enough.

      It is so true that every adult in a child’s life can be an empathy farmer- and exactly why the strong community found in church could help children grow up kind.

  • Bobbie 10 November, 2015 at 11:23 pm

    I’m also one of the Angels along with my brother. We are the two at the back. Small world.

  • Mary 11 November, 2015 at 12:20 am

    This is something I struggle with too. I think a bit problem in the church is a tendency to follow the crowd (ah, the irony!) and not think for oneself. I’m so sick of being thought of as the oddball for my left wing views and gentle parenting. Obviously this happens in any close knit community but in the church people tend to think of the group view as sanctioned by God, even if the views vary from church to church. But I also find it hard not to judge my fellow church goers for their follow-the-crowd mentality, which is common in parents who try to break the mould too! It goes both ways.

  • Madeleine 11 November, 2015 at 12:22 am

    Oh my…I did steal my son’s thunder yesterday. Gosh I feel so sad now, it was just the final drop, but really I should not have done it. At all. I am the mature one, the oldest one and I know way better. Thanks for giving me this mental wake up call, I never thought that doing so would decrease my son’s empathy. As we say in Sweden, redo and make better!

  • Shed 11 November, 2015 at 12:29 am

    Great post Lucy, thank you. I think you were very balanced. We haven’t been to church for a few years now, mostly for the reasons that you stated and when I read the original article the other day, I have to admit I was quite judgemental but you have reminded me of all the positives church had on my childhood. (Lots of shame though, jeez.) You are spot on with your final sentence though. Some days it feels like I am having to rewire my brain to be the parent I want to be and it’s not always easy, but so so important.

  • Carie 11 November, 2015 at 9:53 am

    It’s fascinating how research is so often backing up what so many of us have done as gut instinct isn’t it. I’m curious as to where they took the sample of children from because I think that there can as you say be massive differences across the denomination spectrum, to the point that I struggle to find one iota of shared faith with people who think like Michael Pearl and his ilk. I suspect, though I could never prove, that you might get similar results if you substituted schools for churches – anything that acts as the formation of a community has the potential to highlight the full range of human behaviour including empathy when shown. This is another of those be the change you want to see moments isn’t it 🙂

  • Liz 12 November, 2015 at 7:33 am

    Love this article, it’s so true, Jesus never shamed or punished anyone, as Christians we should be following His example, not a set of books / doctrine!

  • Jess 12 November, 2015 at 10:26 pm

    Hey Lucy,
    Thoughtful piece – I enjoyed reading it thank you. I do wonder thought whether your comment about this “new peaceful vision of adult-child relationships” – while some of the science may be new I think this approach has been around for a long time (possibly forever) and it is just the language we use to describe the approach which has changed. Children are people and we should encounter people with empathy, joy and openness x

    • Lucy 14 November, 2015 at 9:03 am

      I came to this idea from Robin Grille “parenting for a peaceful world” which shows really comprehensively how violent adult-chil relationships have been in most (not all) societies since ancient history- he shows how our notion that it is “natural / historical” is mere romance 🙂 We are radicalising parenting 🙂

  • Becky 17 November, 2015 at 4:12 am

    yes empathy is so crucial and my lovely Lucy I adore that you wrote to the pope xxxx

  • ThaliaKR 19 November, 2015 at 8:02 pm

    Very thoughtful and helpful, thanks, Lucy.

  • 10 Thoughtful Ways Parents Can Choose Empathy over Explosion - Parent Co. 10 June, 2016 at 12:20 pm

    […] their empathy cells. (It sounds a bit like science fiction, but it is Actual Science!) There is only one thing that creates mean kids and adults and that is treating them unkindly – the empathy center in their brain literally, […]

  • Edwin Rutsch 11 June, 2016 at 6:17 am

    For a cornucopia of resources on empathy see the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy.

    We invite you to join the International Empathy Trainers Association

    Director: Center for Building a Culture of Empathy

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