They’re cute. They’re cuddly. In fact, babies are so cute and cuddly that they may even be able to warm the hearts of bullies — at least according to researchers who have witnessed it firsthand.
In an opinion column in The New York Times, David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World, writes about Roots of Change, an innovative Canadian program which aims to teach compassion and empathy — and reduce bullying. How does it work?
“It seems that it’s not only possible to make people kinder, it’s possible to do it systematically at scale at least with school children,” writes Bornstein, referring to Roots of Empathy’s work with schools.
The organization arranges for a mother and a 2-4 month old baby to visit a class monthly. A trained instructor guides the classroom through the visits, during which the children sit around the baby and its parent and try to understand what the baby is feeling.
“It’s a launch pad for them to understand their own feelings and the feelings of others,” explains Roots of Empathy founder Mary Gordon. “It carries over to the rest of class.”
The response has been quite incredible. “Researchers have found that the program increases kindness and acceptance of others and decreases negative aggression,” writes Bornstein.
After interacting with the baby, the students are more empathetic and less aggressive. How is that possible?
Biology is likely at play, in particular, the effects of oxytocin, a hormone which has been associated with caring behavior. C. Sue Carter, a neurobiologist based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has researched the effects of oxytocin, suspects that being around the baby is somehow altering the children’s biology.
“If it works here as it does in other animals, we would guess that exposure to an infant would create a physiological state in which the children would be more social,” said Carter.
Children also learn how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes (or booties, as the case may be) and to think of someone else’s needs. The children are all given a “job” of taking care of the baby — singing a song, reading aloud or making a “wishing tree.”
Research has shown that the program works and they’ve got the statistics to back them up.
My take? Given the recent slew of bullying incidents across the country, it’s worth a try. One question I have: how will they recruit the babies?
Would you be interested in trying this program out at your local school? And would you volunteer to participate with your baby?
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