Why We Need to Expose Children to the Troubles of the World

Encouraging kids to discuss violence and natural disasters can help them become more empathetic adults, argues a Northwestern University professor.

(Photo: D. Sharon Pruitt/Getty Images)

May 12, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Ana Arjona is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University and a fellow with The OpEd Project’s Public Voices.

The problems of the world can be overwhelming: devastating natural disasters such as the earthquake in Nepal; the state of police violence and black communities across America; and the daily turmoil experienced by many in Syria, Yemen, or my home country of Colombia are just a few examples of the troubles that can weigh on us. As parents, it may be hard to know how to expose our children to them—but it's important that we do.

Like many Colombians, I think about the legacies of our violence. It was a major driving factor in why I became a political scientist and have devoted the past 12 years to investigating the ways in which war transforms communities and individuals. My children were born in the U.S. and are being raised here. Even though they have spent much time in Colombia and are fluent in Spanish, their experience of what my home country has gone through is limited.

Sharing the work I do as a researcher with my children allows them to understand bits and pieces of what has happened to Colombians across decades of war. However, it is quite different to receive information about disastrous events compared with actually understanding how they affect people on an individual level. What I’ve found is that sometimes the best way to connect with someone else’s experiences is through art and stories.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago is exhibiting the first retrospective of Colombian artist Doris Salcedo with pieces that reflect on Colombia’s history of violence and trauma. They “convey a sense of an absent, missing body and evoke a collective sense of loss,” according to the exhibit's description. I took my sons to the exhibit, and I told them about the interviews that the artist conducted with victims of war about loss and trauma.

My sons listened. They observed the pieces. They felt sad and extremely uncomfortable. And then they wondered, what was the point of feeling so bad?

One of my sons said that he didn’t know what to do with those feelings. He couldn’t understand why these events took place, and he couldn’t think of what to do to help. My other son kept silent for a while. Then he concluded: “I think that ignorance is protective.”

What is the point of having our children leave that protection of ignorance? Why should we make any effort to help them get to know about the miseries of our world? About others’ miseries? What do we achieve with sadness and feelings of impotence and outrage?

Those feelings can achieve a lot. They help us to understand and identify with the experiences of another human being. When we are able to feel an echo of someone else’s pain or happiness, our views and our choices can change. Scientific research on empathy has found that our brain responds to the pain of others similarly to how it responds to our own pain. Furthermore, feeling empathy increases our disposition to engage in pro-social behavior, including helping others, according to a study published in the Journal of Personality.

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It's not always easy to get that close to someone else’s experience, though, or to teach our children how to do so. We do not feel the same empathy for everyone or under all circumstances. The more distant another person's situation seems, the less intense our empathy is—and the less likely we are to make choices that are costly to us and can help that person. Furthermore, we are often unable to imagine a pain that we deem impossible to materialize in our life.

But sometimes we do. A painting. A novel. A documentary. A journalistic account. These bring us close to a person and to his or her experiences and feelings. They allow us to imagine ourselves in someone else's place and, even if for a moment, feel with them. And that very moment, what we feel with one person can make us care more than a statistic that represents thousands of people. Paul Zak, author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity, discovered that “even the simplest narrative can elicit powerful empathic response by triggering the release of neurochemicals like cortisol and oxytocin.”

Of course, research has found that sometimes being exposed to the experiences of others can cause an opposite reaction—we feel so distressed that we seek refuge in evasion or denial. We turn off the TV when it shows pictures of starving children or stop reading the testimony of a tortured prisoner. This is not about telling children too much and creating serious distress for them. But in appropriate and sensible ways, we can encourage our children to think about why these things happen, how society responds, what is wrong, and what needs to change.

I told my children that we should embrace that corrosive feeling of sadness and outrage—that feeling shapes our views of others, as well as our capacity to care about them. What is more, feeling is not enough. We need to invite our children to take action in their daily life: volunteer at a local organization; make an effort to treat better those who are in a weaker position, especially when social pressure pushes them in the opposite direction; and to be attentive to inequalities in our own society and look for ways to make it better.

Perhaps then, one day, they will be more empathetic when they encounter an unaccompanied child crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, when they form their opinions about drone strikes, or when they meet an ex-convict.

An informed and concerned citizenry is not made up of adults who one day start caring about their fellow human beings. It requires education. It starts with childhood. If we want our children to develop a deep and lasting concern for the well-being of others, we can’t hide reality from them. We should take them with us, hold their hand, and show them the way.