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The Real Roots of Empathy

Every now and then I read a bizarre article in a magazine that fails to mention the one big elephant in the room. You know the ones: articles that talk about how women make less than men, but they fail to talk about how women take time off to have children. Or articles that talk about how badly certain racial communities do in school, but they fail to talk about the family makeup of many within that community.

A while ago I found an article in Time magazine, and I bookmarked it to come back to later.

Here's the argument, and you tell me if you can figure out what's missing:

Children need to learn empathy to avoid growing up as a bully. Children who are raised impersonally, like in an orphanage or in Sparta, often lose the ability to have any empathy at all. Certain school curricula can teach children empathy.

See anything absent? I sure do. How about this? The biggest difference between toddlers who are sent to day care and children who are raised by a parent is the ability to feel empathy. The article goes on and on about how schools can raise children's levels of empathy, but fails to point out that perhaps the reason we're in the mess we're in is that parents aren't raising their children in the first place.

Now, let me put a caveat in here. I know daycare is sometimes necessary. I grew up in daycare, and I turned out rather well (though I hated being in daycare; I don't remember much from when I was 3, but I do remember that). My mother was single, and she had no choice.

I also know that parents who have their children in a small, family run daycare, where they are cared for by a friend, often do fine. I'm not talking about them. But I know lots of parents who have more than enough money for one parent to stay at home who instead opt for their child to go to day care so that the parents can pursue a career. Here's a paragraph in that article that stood out to me:

Institutionalized infants do not experience being the center of a loving family's attention; instead, they are cared for by a rotating staff of workers, which is inherently neglectful. The infants miss out on intensive, one-on-one affection and attachment with a parental figure, which babies need at that vulnerable age. Without that experience, they learn early on that the world is a cold, insecure and untrustworthy place. Their emotional needs having gone unmet, they frequently have trouble understanding or appreciating the feelings of others.

The author is referring to Romanian orphanages, but I see little difference between that and daycares, where you have a ratio of four babies to one caregiver. Who honestly thinks those babies are getting personalized attention? I have several friends who work at a daycare, and all are uncomfortable with the care. Two have recently quit; one to do foster care, and one to do something else entirely. Both women raised their children at home, and the contrast between the care that they gave their own kids and the care that they were able to give all these kids at a large daycare was stark. They felt that it was wrong to exacerbate the situation by actually helping parents leave their children at the daycare which they knew was not good quality for the children, even though these women are amazing moms.

And it was hard on them, too. They were hit. They were bitten. They were routinely smacked. And not by children from "bad" homes, either. On the whole, these are kids from two-parent homes, where the parents go to church. But daycare is not a fun place to work, because the children often are quite violent.

Home daycares can be a different story, but when there are cribs lined up everywhere, so all the children can go to sleep at the same time, even if there are also colourful toys and stimulating pictures and loads of books, there's something wrong. And studies show that.

In order to develop empathy, children must feel a sense of attachment to their caregiver. They have to have long interactions where they "converse", even if it consists of just cooing and the parent figure gushing over them and tickling them. It's hard to attach when daycare workers change as frequently as they do (turnover is horrible in daycares). And you can't have one-on-one time when there are just so many kids who need your attention. It isn't the daycare workers' fault.

I feel as if there is a conspiracy of silence around this, and it isn't just hurting kids. It's hurting families, too. I know many women who want to stay home with their kids, but they're being told by husbands and parents that kids in daycare do fine. In fact, they do better in school because they're so stimulated! So you should work. How can they refute that?

You are enough for your child. In fact, you are indispensable for your child. And rather than relying on schools to teach your children empathy and attachment, I think we should rely on ourselves. Certainly it is hard to survive on one income, and you might need part-time care. But on the whole, try to be the primary caregiver for your child. Hire friends or family to care for your children if necessary. And remember that there really is no substitute for a loving Mommy.


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At 9:12 AM , Blogger Sheri said…

Rah!!! I so agree with you!


At 9:29 AM , Blogger Llama Momma said…

I couldn't agree more.

It's sad to see kids get the short end of the stick. As you say, sometimes it's necessary. I'm so grateful I didn't have to leave my babies in a daycare to work, and have great empathy for moms who do.

One of the moms on my block needed to go back to work last year, and I keep her son for an hour before school. It's no big deal for me, but I know for her first grader, being able to walk across the street and eat a hot breakfast with his friends (my boys), then walk to school with us is a much easier start to his day than the alternatives.


At 11:11 AM , Blogger Tessa said…

I love this and totally agree. I've been blessed enough to be able to stay home full time with my son (not ithout some sacrifices and hard work but we're here now). And I know a mom who had to go back to work when her children were 3 months (her hubby was in college so she was the sole income earner) but still managed to be attached to her children.
It's totally possible to do both. But a lot of times people just choose not too. Money/lifestyle becomes so much more important. Besides, kids in day care socialize more, are stimulated more blah blah blah. It drives me nuts when moms bring their kids to day care a day or two per week just so they can "have a break." I understand needing breaks, but isn't that what a husband is for? Or a close friend or Grandma?

I will say that my son is amazingly empathetic for a two year old. And I truly believe it's because he was able to grow up around true love all the time. The only way for children to demonstrate love and empathy is for it to be demonstrated to them.

Also, glad you're posting again. I was starting to wonder if everything was alright :)


At 7:00 PM , Anonymous LauraLee Shaw said…

Wow, articles like that really tell a lot, don't they? Love that you wrote about this, Sheila.


At 8:53 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

I have learned a lot from you. This is one of my favorite blogs, and we agree on so much. I absolutley love that you are not afraid to express your opinion. However, I have to express my own in some disagreement on this one.

I know that you are extremely loving and understanding of individual circumstances. I feel like I know your perspective and know the "big picture" concern - that children are made a priority by their mothers. That a whole generation of children raised in an institution is going to have its effects. I agree. And so you have not really offended me. But I still disagree in part.

I think it is always great to remind moms of their priorities and responsibilities. To remind them of what their kids need from them. To remind moms that their role of "mom" has the greatest impact on the world, and that it is the most important and fulfilling job that they will hold.

I don't think it's okay to say that daycare and working outside the home is only okay if it is "necessary." I don't just think it is forward, I think it is wrong. I think that this type of statement removes God from the situation and creates women "peer judges" who do not belong in that seat.

What's "necessary?" If God calls you into the workplace and provides a daycare, and you CAN survive without the income, you should go to work. Period. Women have absolutely no place to decide for someone else what God is calling them to do.

When my daughter was approaching a year, my husband and I felt a distinct push for me to go back to work. We were barely getting by, but we were getting by, and could have continued. I loved being home full time and had planned to do it forever. I did not want to go back to work. But we knew without a doubt what God was asking, and we obeyed.

A month later, my husband was put in a very sticky situation at work, and he was able to stand up for what he believed because I had an income. Years later, we found out that my daughter has selective mutism. Her condition was easier to diagnose because of the years she spent in daycare, and her condition was not as bad as most because she had been in daycare. Once I learned the rules for treating SM, I also learned that her loving teachers who disobeyed my requests to be hard on her about speaking were doing the right thing and I was doing the wrong thing.

If I would have listened to the moms who say things like "these are the only reasons you should work or use daycare or else you are selfish" I would have missed out on God's divine wisdom.

This is one situation of hundreds that are out there, and moms are constantly trying to "define the rules" about working. There are no rules. There are commands God has given us about our parental and family responsibilities, and there is the command to abide in God for all of our decisions.

Again, I get the big picture, but the big picture is not daycare. The big picture is moms not putting God first and not making their families top priority when they make decisions. The big picture is that we have a society that does not value motherhood.

That is where this type of conversation should always take place.


At 8:55 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


At 8:56 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


At 11:41 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

Comparing daycare to an orphanage is incredibly harsh!! Do you truly and honestly believe children in daycare (no matter the hours they are there?) are no better off than orphans?

At present, my child is watched by a friend for maybe 20 hours a week and we have made an effort to find an alternative to commercial daycare, but I have friends with children who spend time in daycare and they seem happy and well-adjusted.

Normally, I like your blog, but I'm not sure what to think about this one!!

Nurse Bee


At 8:08 AM , Blogger Joy said…

I agree completely.

With my first two children, I went back to work straightaway - I had to, I needed the money desperately.
With my third child, I found out that it would cost me more to put my kids in daycare than it would to stay home... so I decided to try to stay home.
I can tell you from personal experience that my youngest child is far more independent and confident than my other two children, although my older two have made great improvements since I've started to stay home (4 years now). Their grades are better, and their behaviour is so much more reasonable.
During the school year, when my youngest was about 2 years old, I signed her up for a gym program at our local YMCA. She loved it - however, halfway through the class they would allow the daycare children to come in and use the equipment. I remember how horrified I was that these young children were allowed to run wild on all of the equipment, there was pushing and shoving, and the daycare providers couldn't seem to care less, it was basically their break.
We ended up leaving when the daycare kids showed up every time, because my daughter was just too young to be pushed around like that - even with me right there, and I vowed that I would never put my children in a daycare.
If I ever did need to go back to work and find care, it would definitely be in a home setting, with someone I trusted.


At 8:33 AM , Blogger Terry @ Breathing Grace said…

I have a close relative who worked in numerous daycares (even ran a few) before quitting. She does everything in her power to keep her grandchildren out of daycare.

She would agree 100% with Sheila's assessment of institutional day care.

It's not PC, I know, and as I come from a commuity with a large percentage of single mothers, I know how hard it is to be un-PC, but the truth is the truth.

Sheila is very balanced in her views, probably much moreso than me. And I applaud her for being willing to say what is unpopular.


At 8:45 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

Nurse Bee, I agree with you. I had a hard time reading this post anyway. I have to work full-time and my sister watches my baby, and it's awesome that she is able to do that. It the best solution to the childcare problem that I knew I would be facing. Even so, I still feel guilty and for what? My job is what keeps us out of the bread line. It's easy for those who haven't necessarily been there to make a snap judgment, but if you have been there, then you know living it is much harder. Comparing daycare to an orphanage? That isn't empathy at all; it's unfair judgment on the mom and the child.


At 10:07 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

I am reading comments and noticing that I few moms who bash daycare have their children in school. As of this moment, I am a sahm and homeschooler. The first thought that flags my mind when I read this is "why are they giving such and important job as educating their children to strangers?" But you know what? That thought goes through my mind because my situation happens to be such a perfect fit for my family right now; and when we find the perfect fit in our home, we have a hard time understanding what is a fit for others.

Does anyone really think it would be okay for me to list all of the horrible things I have witnessed or heard about in public and private schools and then say in a superior way, "I would NEVER put my children in such an atmosphere!"? - of course not. We know it is wrong. And for all I know, these moms may have prayerfully spent months or years making the decision on how to educate their child. I would never look one of these women in the eye and list the reasons why their decision is bad - that is a clear sign that it is wrong to say at all.

Making a blanket statement about daycare is just as awful as making a blanket statement about police officers, pastors, teachers, Christians, and public schools.

And yes, I agree, the comparison of daycares to orphanages is flawed. Children in orphanages actually are cared for by a rotating staff. Orphans do not have parents. Children in daycares do, and many have great parents. I agree, however, that empathy is taught in the home, not in a curriculum.

In defense of Sheila, I don't think she is being "harsh" - she is very thoughtful and considerate about these things. And we DO need people to stand up for the importance of family relationships. I just think that this comparison in particular was not a good one, and I think that more damage is done in the comments than in the post. I comment for the sake of women I know who will read some of the remarks made here and cry but will not comment themselves.

We can discuss these things in a way that sets a much better example of the church.

I have seen so much of this lately in the blog comment section, and really think we need to stop and think about how we would say things to a woman we are facing in person before we say in writing on the internet. If it isn't Godly enough to say looking someone in the eye, then it is not Godly at all.


At 10:38 AM , Blogger Sheila said…

Hi everyone!

Wow, interesting comments! Sorry I haven't contributed more. I'm in Calgary just finishing up international Bible quizzing tournament with my girls (one daughter placed 15th overall, it was so cool!). And the wifi has been sketchier than I expected. We're hitting the Calgary Zoo before flying home tonight, so I probably won't post again until tomorrow, but I'll chime in really briefly here.

First, Nurse Bee, I do want to draw a distinction between at home day care, where there's a consistent caregiver in a home with a few children, and a commercial daycare. Commercial daycares are pretty much exactly like institutions. You have a rotating staff (commercial daycares have some of the highest turnovers of any job, short of chef), you have many kids with few workers, and the schedule is quite regimented. There's a world of difference between that and a friend looking after 3 kids in her home.

Kelly, I hear your point, and I do want to respond properly in a post of its own, probably later this week once I'm back and have had some sleep! I certainly wasn't trying to be judgmental (like I said, my mother had me in daycare), but this is something I do feel quite passionate about, and I'll give it more thought so I can actually make a good response!


At 10:55 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

Welcome back:)


At 4:07 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

I guess it's nice to know I'm not at the bottom of the totem pole in the mommy wars. I can feel superior to those who use commercial daycare (sarcasm intended).

Nurse Bee


At 5:25 PM , Blogger Terry @ Breathing Grace said…

Okay, for the record, I am one with children in public school. The thing is, though, that I know it isn't the ideal situation and I would never try to insist that it is as good a choice as any other. I've told my story 100 times online and won't burden Sheila's comment section with it again.

I am also a homeshooling mother as well.

People do what they have to do. I think what bothers me is our culture's insistence that there is no such thing as good, better, best. That all choices are equal They are not.

Our acknowledgment of that truth helps us to go the extra mile to help minimize the damage our kids experience as a result of the choices we had to make. Our ignoring of the realities does a great disservice to our kids.

My saying that institutional daycare leaves a great deal to be desired is simply a statement of fact. It is not to "feel superior."


At 11:04 AM , Blogger Llama Momma said…

For the record, my kids also go to public school.

As Terry said, I don't think this is an "us against them" post at all -- it's a statement of fact.


Very young children in institutional daycare settings is a tough pill to swallow. Their little minds and bodies are so completely vulnerable. Will they be cared for as carefully and as lovingly as a parent would care for them? This is the question parents need to ask when they choose their childcare situation.

The public school thing is a different conversation altogether. Franky, I'm sick to death of defending myself as a christian mom who sends her kids to the neighborhood school.

But here's what I know: for right now, public school is best for my kids and I'm absolutely sure this is where God wants us. Right now. Could that change? Sure.

But we live three blocks away from one of the best schools in the U.S. My boys are both in a gifted program, and pulled out for reading and math and science, and they can continue to excel.

They love it and they're thriving.

They're in third grade. Twins. Every teacher they've had so far, with the exception of one, has been a christian. Incredible.

When my husband was on a missions trip to Russia, they were each encouraged by their teachers to share with the class what their dad was doing: giving toys and bibles to children in need at christmastime. Sharing the hope of Christ with kids on the other side of the world. The teachers each tied it into a lesson about life in Russia, but encouraged the boys to share their faith freely. (As they do for all kids in their class -- christian and not.)

We have formed solid relationships with our family has started attending church with us. (not believers)

All of that to say, I get not wanting to be labeled. I do.

I don't think this post was meant to "label" anyone.


At 2:53 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

I think there are great insights and agreement here:

- "People do what they have to do" - sometimes necessary is necessary and that's all there is to it. Women have enough heart break dealing with that fact.

- All choices are not equal. Absolutely correct. Some situations are just more desireable. The fallacy is when we say something like "you should never _____ unless it is 'necessary' or "I would never ___" or "Try to ____ if you can." Because God has his own designs and plans, and these statements defy Him and confuse women who are truly seeking his will. (trust someone who had it smacked right back at her - tell God NEVER and it just may be the next thing on your agenda).

And that leads us to:

"I'm absolutely sure this is where God wants us. Right now. Could that change? Sure." - Women need to know that this is enough, even if many of their friends are doing something different, and they need to have support from those who are led differently.

Women are "sick to death" of having to defend their decisions, so we should all remember how it feels to have to do that, and realize that some-of-the-facts aren't all-of-the-facts when you look into the life of another.

-Kids with good intentional Christian parents can do well in classrooms and bring God's light and presence there where it would not normally have been. They can have great inspiring teachers and memorable experiences.

_Babies in daycare who have good intentional Christian parents experience one-on-one time, loving attention and attachment, and have a very distinct and different life than babies in an orphanage.

-kids at home, kids homeschooling, kids in public schools or in any childcare situation who have parents with priorites out of order get the short end of the stick.

-Commercial daycare has disadvantages. There are awful places out there, and I found some of them. Small in-home daycare has its own set of concerns, that when we weighed personally made us much more comfortable with commercial daycare.

So weigh all of the facts before making a decision.


At 11:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

I just would really like to see more "mommy" blogs (particularly Christian ones) do more to foster a spirit of unity among all moms.

I'm not saying everyone needs to agree, but maybe discussing and learning about others in different situations is helpful rather than making generalizations and falling back on sterotypes (and I know it goes both ways).

Nurse Bee


At 12:08 PM , Blogger Terry @ Breathing Grace said…

Nurse Bee is right. It does go both ways. I agree with the sentiment behind her statement, but I would offer another thought to consider as well.

Too much emphasis on unity at the expense of truth is not a good thing, particularly in the church.

Whether we're talking about the fact that children don't farewell in daycare or something else, the clarion call for unity at all costs makes it far too easy for us to neglect to call one another to a higher standard.

To summarily dismiss the mountains of research (much of it secular) that points out that children's ability to empathize is compromised by the atmosphere in institutional daycare centers because we don't want to hurt someone else's feelings or make them feel judged is not necessarily a loving act.

The fact of the matter is this: The way I raise my children is my responsibility, but it isn't only MY business. It matters to society as a whole what kind of people I turn loose into society.

Our problem has been this: as public school parents, we have gone above and beyond to compensate for that. Many other Christian parents say to us that we go overboard, while they make no compensations nor do anything to see to it that 100% of their kids' social interactions aren't governed by their peers, most of whom are not Christians.

For parents who need daycare, the point I would press is to 1) try to find close family, friends, or a good home daycare with not too many children under the roof. 2)If you have to go to a center, make it a Christian one, preferably one without cable TV. and 3)Overcompensate for the time the kids spend in that environment when they're at home. Space is limited here, but do your homework.

Whatever we do, we cannot ignore the fact that we are called to rasie and nurture our children in the Lord, which takes time and hard work. Third parties will never be as invested as we are and in a place with high turnover rates, the investment is virtually nonexistent.

Okay Sheila, I will shut up from here on out and wait for your follow-up thoughts.


At 4:04 PM , Blogger Sheila said…


Beautifully put! Thanks for your always thoughtful comments, and thanks everyone else for commenting, too! I know that this is a difficult topic, and I don't think that we should label each other. But as Terry said, we also shouldn't shy away from truth.

And so my post is going up on Monday! I hope that it will be taken in the spirit that it's intended--not to judge or label, but just to present my opinion.

Thanks so much, ladies, for commenting. I appreciate all of you so much!

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Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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