Empathetic Children Are Better at Learning

In a study, the least gullible children were the ones who accurately interpreted emotional cues as well as the most verbally capable.


Childhood psychology has long studied how children learn and synthesize information, but less understood is the way children understand adults. Certain negative interactions with adults — such as lying — have been examined at length, while more positive ones — such as attention disorders — have been less understood.

Interested in how children connect language and “theory of mind” (i.e., empathy), researchers in Canada constructed an experiment that set out to connect juvenile empathy with learning. As Science Daily reports: “The participants were first introduced to several different figurines and given some background information about each: Mr. Jones likes carrots; Linda thinks her cat is hiding in the bushes; Polly and Peter have never seen what's inside the box. The children were then asked to theorize about what kind of snack Mr. Jones would want, where Linda would search for her dog and what Polly and Peter would think was inside the box.”

It could be said that childhood psychology may not be so much a field that evolved to understand children as it is to understand adults.

The least gullible children were the ones who accurately interpreted the figurines’ emotions as well as the most verbally capable. Moreover, these children selectively gravitated toward the figurines that were the most reliable.

Emotional competence, which builds learning skills, comes better through game play than traditional classroom lessons, says professional educator Eva Moskowitz

The complex link among verbosity, empathy, and trust cannot be explained by this experiment alone. But it has been explored time and time again in literature, religion, and philosophy. The White Witch puzzles Edmund with her question of whether he is a boy or a human, but he then intuitively trusts to partake in the Turkish Delight she offers because he’s discerningly determined she is a force to be reckoned with. After a desperate search for their gifted child, Mary and Joseph find Jesus amongst the rabbis “asking questions” (Luke 2:46) while the Prophet Mohammed was shuffled amongst his elders — both women and men — who, according to various hadiths (oral histories), were in awe of his ability to psychologically connect with them.

For adults, mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s also the sincerest and most basic form of survival for children.

It could be said that childhood psychology may not be so much a field that evolved to understand children as it is to understand adults. Children remind us of our forgotten ignorance. They also make us feel important in all we think we know. But as all great books and myths show, even that feeling is childlike. In Hindu legend, baby Krishna’s mother scolds him for eating sand, then realizes he holds the universe is in his mouth; so too, we tell children how to act, think, and speak, yet they will inherit and remake what we once did. No matter how ignorant, mathematically speaking, children symbolically hold the universe — not "constant" adults. It's no wonder then that children intuitively seek out the smartest, most confident, and best looking of us — they are cognitive variables searching for a preference.

For adults, mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s also the sincerest and most basic form of survival for children. The prodigy John Stuart Mill reflected on the value of his father who taught him that “The question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question, ‘Who made God.’” His point was that the question is a tautology. So is being human.

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Daphne Muller is a New York City-based writer who has written for Salon, Ms. Magazine, The Huffington Post, and reviewed books for ELLE and Publishers Weekly. Most recently, she completed a novel and screenplay. You can follow her on Instagram @daphonay and on Twitter @DaphneEMuller.

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