“Are you okay, Daddy? Are you okay? Can I give you a hand?” says my 2 year old to his father, who has just fallen trying to waterski. I’m 7 months pregnant, driving the boat, and two year old Ben is in the boat with me, life jacket on, watching his dad. Of course Paul has fallen, because he had never waterskied before, or since. But it remains one of our best memories, because here’s this little kid, barely able to put words together, asking if he can help his dad, who’s floundering in the water (also in a life jacket) with water skis. From an adult’s perspective, exactly what was going on inside that 2 year brain, to think he was in any position to help his dad? What’s more remarkable is that he thought he could.
What we didn’t realize then, but I see now after all my brain reading, is that this marked a crucial moment in my son’s brain development. Take a step back, and think about everything that has to happen for a 2 year old to ask that question. And I don’t mean the ability to speak – which is remarkable enough. But the ability to recognize another person as separate, to see that they need help, and to offer it.
In the last decade or so, scientists have discovered what they call mirror neurons, and they are responsible for a whole host of interactions between human beings, most of which we take for granted until they don’t work. (Watch for upcoming posts on psychopaths and kids with autism.) In neuro-typical brains, that is, brains that operate more or less as they should, this ability to have take someone else’s perspective is made possible by mirror neurons, and it starts showing up much earlier than we ever realized. The book “Born for Love” says we are “genetically predisposed to care for others, but the development of empathy requires a life-long process of relational interaction.”
So the capacity for empathy, like the capacity for language, is hardwired, but the neural pathways start forming in the infant-caregiver bond. By around 18 months or so, babies are able to spontaneously offer helpful behavior. If you are sad, they will bring you the blanket or stuffed animal that comforts them. We are hard-wired to experience distress at another’s distress. Newborns cry at the sound of another baby’s cries. Our two year old’s body sure wasn’t big enough or strong enough to literally give his dad a hand, but his young brain recognized someone in need and wanted to offer help. Helping another in distress does relieve our distress triggered by witnessing their’s, but it also releases oxytocin – the hormone of human connection – and dopamine – the reward hormone. Even babies know, it just feels good to help. The more we encourage them, the better and more spontaneous their offers, and the same is true for us. Practice practice practice kindness!