On Psychology

May 6, 1998 / 10 Iyar, 5758

Dr. Wade Horn

Collision with a pathetic reality

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

JUST WHEN I THINK it can't get any worse, it does.

During a recent morning commute from the suburbs of Virginia into Washington, D.C., a van flipped over leaving one of its passengers lying in the middle of the highway, half-conscious, spitting blood and convulsing. Two motorists, a 31 year-old Pentagon computer specialist and a 38 year-old army major, stopped to give assistance.

That's the good news. Now for the bad.

As these two Good Samaritans were administering first aide to the victim, other morningrush hour commuters, many in BMWs, paused just long enough to shout such "helpful" comments as: "Why don't you learn how to drive!" and "Get out of the road!" Some drivers refused to slow down or even move over to another lane. Several cars came within inches of running over the victim. A taxi cab driver hailed down by one of the rescuers, refused to call 911 for assistance. As one cop said at the scene of the accident, "This world has just got about as cold as it can get."

As Simon, the black tow-truck driver in the movie Grand Canyon said, when faced with five young thugs about to mug and maybe even kill a lost motorist: "Man, the world ain't s'pposed to work like this ... This ain't the way it's s'pposed to be."

He's right. The world ain't s'pposed to be this way.

Research by developmental psychologists shows that for the vast majority of us, concern for others emerges very early in life. Even before children are a year old, the cries of another child elicits a frown, crying or imploring looks toward adults to take care of the distressed child. By the time children reach two years of age, most try to do something for a distressed child, such as protecting them, bringing help, making suggestions or verbally expressing sympathy.

In one study of three- to seven-year-olds on playgrounds, about half of all children showed visible concerns when another child was crying, with 32 percent either coming to the youngster's aid, asking an adult to help or threatening the child who was responsible for the tears. Only 2 percent showed a complete lack of empathy. So, if empathy and giving aid emerges so early and is so common in young children, why was it so uncommon in the D.C. commuters on that Tuesday morning?

One answer is television. The daily stream of violent and distressed images emanating from our TVs serves to desensitize us -- and our children -- to the reality of suffering as well as to the needs of others. Yet another reason to turn that TV off.

Another answer is the lack of compassionate and giving models for our children to emulate.

Most of us preach a good talk about caring for others, but when it comes to the doing, many of us fall short. It is useful to remind ourselves that when it comes to rasing compassionate kids, the best sermon is, indeed, a good example.

But I think a far more important reason is our turning away from universal truths in favor of embracing a value-free culture. In our admirable desire to be inclusive and to respect diversity, we far too easily discard the idea that there are, nonetheless, universal truths and moral standards to which we all should adhere. Recently, for example, I read a report on the enforcement of statutory rape laws which argued that sex between twenty-year-old men and 14- and 15-year-old girls is not always a problem because in some cultures this kind of thing is acceptable. This is, in plain language, cultural relativism run amok.

Absent an understanding that there are universal truths -- that some things are absolutely right, others absolutely wrong -- we float aimlessly through life with no clear moral compass to guide us. Without an overarching metaphysical basis for ethical decisionmaking, all that is left is the wimpy admonition to "practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty."

But what that bleeding woman needed on that highway was not a random act of kindness, but commuters who understood that it is simply unacceptable to speed by someone in distress.

What she needed was not a senseless act of beauty, but a culture with sense enough to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

This is where parents come in. Compassion for others may emerge early in childhood. But left alone, it will whither. It is up to us as parents to ensure that these early emerging signs of caring and altruism are nurtured and reinforced.

Doing so requires that we first model compassion and caring for others in our own lives.

Not just with our children, but with our neighbors. Giving checks to charity is nice, but its influence on our children is far less than when they observe us giving of ourselves.

Second, we need to help our children develop the skills for translating compassion and concern for others into concrete action. Research shows that children do not behave affectionately, considerately and cooperatively with others merely because they observe pro-social models. Rather, we must encourage them to engage in these behaviors, for virtuous behavior becomes a habit only through practice.

Finally, and most importantly, we need to teach our children that they are not some random, cosmic accident, floating about in an indifferent and empty universe, but unique creations of G-d, who provides us with a higher purpose for living than mere momentary pleasure. If we fail in this, don't be surprised that all we have left is a world in which busy commuters speed by accident scenes in their BMWs.

New JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


4/26/98: It's time parents learned to 'Just Say No!'

© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn