By Celestte Dills, MEd
Illuminate DNA (Sept 2014) suggests that bullying behavior frequently derives from a lack of one important human trait – empathy. On this basis, the logical path takes us to the more defined and better researched question of the heritability of empathy. The December 2016 issue of Mind & Body cites a joint study conducted by the University of Bonn and Saarland University where twins, both fraternal and identical, along with siblings who were not twins, were assessed for two levels of empathy – affective, or a person’s ability to feel what someone else is feeling, and cognitive, or a person’s ability to understand another person’s feelings and reasoning. The results of this empirical study were inconclusive.
No authority or study would argue that environment (to include teachers, family upbringing, and childhood trauma/ stress) plays a large role in the level of empathy found in individuals. The earlier the environment affects the person, the greater this impact (positive or negative) will have on the person in their adult years. In other words, environmental impact at ages 3-8 will have a greater chance of creating substantive behavior alterations than if similar lessons and impact happened at ages 10+. Longitudinal studies, conducted by Dr. Phil Strain and his colleagues, describe the long-term effects of having key friendship and pro-social behavioral skills. Children who are able to create healthy friendships early in life show: less drug and alcohol abuse/ , less mental health issues, greater work success, and greater capacity to cope with stressors.
While studies continue in this area that may eventually provide empirical evidence of the role genes play in the level of empathy in an individual, I, along with my fellow educators, do not intend to wait for numbers that will tell us what we inherently know -that environment will always play the larger role in developing the attribute of empathy. Children will only learn what we teach them. We have a responsibility to teach children the skills they need for a meaningful and successful life.
Celestte Dills, MEd is an early childhood educator with over 30 years of teaching, administrative, and curriculum development experience. She has specific subject matter expertise in social-emotional learning, supporting at-risk/ trauma exposed students, and children with exceptional developmental/ medical needs. The views expressed in this article are based on observation and field experience and not from applied genetic research.