Parents of a newborn baby no doubt look at the bundle in their arms and flash-forward to what their child might grow up to become. Will he or she be an economic genius like Warren Buffet? Or maybe an artistic visionary like David Bowie? What about their heart and mind – will they be happy and funny and kind? And then, somewhere on a lower rung of thought, there are all the fears you don’t let fully materialize: like will he or she grow up to hurt and spite others? What are the chances that they will take after that one sour, twisted relative in the family tree? Psychopaths and narcissists have parents too, some subterranean part of a parent’s mind may worry.
According to Dr. Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist working at the University of California, Berkeley, infants and young children are not the blank slates we think they are; they are not clueless balls of dough waiting to be shaped. New neuroscience research has flipped that long-held belief on its head – babies aren’t ego-centric wildlings that have to be tamed into civility, and they don’t have to learn how to be good humans from scratch, because from as young as 18 months they are already displaying genuine moral intuition. “The youngest children have a great capacity for empathy and altruism. There’s a recent study that shows even 14-month-olds will climb across a bunch of cushions and go across a room to give you a pen if you drop one,” Gopnik says.
Recently, she read an article by a New York Times columnist who likened Donald Trump’s behavior to that of a two-year-old, and found herself deeply offended – on behalf of the two-year-old. Narcissism, egotism and a lack of empathy don’t belong to infants, she says, they’re grown-up conditions that happen somewhere in the passage from childhood to adulthood.
The best parents can do is try to encourage children’s natural tendencies towards altruism, without falling into the trap of tribalism that typically comes with that lesson. What Gopnik means by this is that often, children are taught to care about one thing by contrasting it against something they don’t have to care about, for example family and friends vs. everyone else, or caring about your country, but not the country next door. The great challenge of raising a child is to present a complete worldview, where empathy doesn’t hit a tribal barrier – or should we say, a wall.
Alison Gopnik’s most recent book is The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children.
Alison Gopnik: One of the things that we've discovered in neuroscience is that children already have moral intuitions from the time they're extremely young. So even 14-month-olds will go out of their way to try to help someone else who's in trouble. And there's even some evidence that this is true for babies, for infants. So the old picture that we had about moral development was that children started out being these amoral egocentric creatures and then they had to be socialized into being moral or caring about other people. And that view is sort of exactly the opposite of the view that we have now. There was a column in the New York Times that said someone like Donald Trump is like a two-year-old and I was extremely irritated, thought about writing a letter to say that's a terrible insult to two-year-olds. Two-year-olds are not narcissistic and egocentric and only concerned with their own happiness. They have the potential for caring about other people taking care of them. It's something that happens between being two and being grown-up that makes the narcissist and the egotists of the world develop. That's a grown-up condition not a condition of a two-year-old.
And as a parent the challenge is to try to give children information and encouragement for those natural tendencies towards altruism. Now it has to be said that we have a lot of evidence that that natural tendency towards altruism, toward helping for others, being empathic to others, caring for others seems to go hand-in-hand with a tendency to split people up into an in-group, the people that we're empathic for and take care of and then an out-group, the others. And the others are the ones that we don't have to take care of. And those two things, from an evolutionary perspective, even from a physiological neuroscience perspective, seem to go hand-in-hand. So the challenge for a parent is to say give children a sense of encouraging that sense of belonging and caring about other people without also having a sense that you only do that for your group and you cannot care about the other group.