Answer by Suzanne Sadedin, evolutionary biologist:
Disclaimer: There isn't a clear-cut scientific answer. This answer is my interpretation of current ideas that seem to work with preschoolers, based mainly in attachment theory.
Most children, early on, are naturally inclined to be both cruel and kind, but not at the same time: the actions are mutually inhibitory. So in fostering one, we automatically reduce the other.
How do cruelty and kindness develop?
Cruelty flows from anger and frustration, and confers a feeling of power over others that can be pleasurable. Children aren't born with effective techniques for emotional self-regulation. When they experience strong negative emotions, they feel they've lost control, which is scary, and one way to regain the feeling of control is to be cruel or hurtful.
Kindness flows from empathy, the sense of feeling another's pain, and creates feelings of nurturing and power that are pleasurable. But empathy involves emotional vulnerability, so a child who feels hurt or threatened is unable to extend empathy until she has developed sophisticated emotional self-regulation.
Children are also hedonists: they seek to recreate situations that have been intrinsically rewarding in the past. Successfully recreating these situations further strengthens the neural pathways that gave rise to them. Over time, some natural behaviours become habitual and others are lost.
So children who repeatedly find they can alleviate their feelings of powerlessness by being cruel, and are not taught alternatives, will come to see cruelty as rewarding generally. Children who are not rewarded for cruelty, but are taught to self-regulate their emotions, and given repeated opportunities to empower themselves through kindness, will become kind.
Lastly, children are born imitators. They love to mimic the behaviour they see in high-status role models; it's almost impossible to stop them. Cruel or kind, the behaviour of dominant kids in a preschool will spread like a virus.
What can we do with this information?
Every day parenting practices
- Be kind yourself. Take every opportunity to model empathy and kindness, both in your interactions with the child and with third parties.
- Seek out opportunities for your child to practice empathy and kindness, and acknowledge it when she does. This will amplify the neural patterns that generate her acts of kindness. Do not, however, provide material rewards for these behaviours, since extrinsic rewards interfere with intrinsic motivation.
- Foster a trusting relationship with your child. The safer your child feels with you, the easier it will be for her to regain self-control during conflict.
- Practice mindfulness with your child. This increases their self-awareness and self-control, both emotionally and physiologically. As they understand how their bodies respond to emotion, their emotions become less frightening, and with practice they learn how to dampen negative emotional responses instead of escalating them.
- Enjoy reading fiction with your child. Research shows that reading stories helps children to learn to understand and empathise with different perspectives. Watching TV doesn't seem to have the same benefits.
Responding to cruelty
- Don't allow your child to experience cruelty as rewarding or fun. When she is being cruel, or watching a role model be cruel (in real life or on TV), remove her from the situation and then talk about it.
- When you talk about cruelty, you first need to make your child feel safe from her own negative emotions. Don't punish or reward her. Instead, stay calm, clearly define the problem, and help her to reach a state where she is able to reflect on it.
- When she expresses negative feelings hurtfully, do not escalate the conflict, but simply give her a verbal label for what she's experiencing. For instance, if she says "I hate you and you're never coming to my birthday party again!", you can respond calmly with, "It sounds like you're feeling angry."
- After she's calm, discuss the feelings of the victim to establish an empathic connection in your child's mind. This will inhibit the intrinsic brain circuitry that could otherwise reward cruelty, and activate the circuitry that rewards nurturing, protective behaviour.
- Teach your child how to apologise meaningfully. A meaningful apology requires not only that she acknowledge what she did wrong (self-awareness), but also that she understand why it was wrong (empathy), and she has a plan for how to make amends and change her behaviour (self-regulation). When she apologises meaningfully and is forgiven, the child feels safe, connected, and in control, all of which reduces the likelihood of future cruelty.
- Be patient. We are training a neural network here; she needs a lot of data! If you get angry or punish your child for cruelty, you will scare her, which inhibits empathy and at the same time increases the urge to reassert control through other means, like cruelty. She might inhibit that urge because she's scared, but she will at the same time become less kind, and perhaps she will express cruelty more when you're not there to punish her.
General resources on moral development: The Children We Mean to Raise
Trust, attachment and emotional self-regulation: Emotion Regulation and Attachment: Unpacking Two Constructs and Their Association
Benefits of mindfulness: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/...
Benefits of reading fiction: Can Reading Fiction Improve Empathy?
Meaningful apologies: A Better Way to Say Sorry: Teach Your Children a Thorough Apology