The sky was clear blue with no clouds, a light breeze in the air – a perfect day for fishing. We set out for the sea, the boat puffing along the coast. After a while we took out the gear and got ready to catch mackerel.
This you do by trolling: the boat is moving slowly forward while the line with the gleaming troll is deep down in the water. It takes some skill to know when you’ve got fish and then to manage to pull the line on board without losing the fish on the way.
Being a city girl, I really pride myself having learnt the skill. My son seems like a natural and makes me believe we really must have been hunters long ago. His exhilaration of getting the pray seems quite ancient, at least. Even our environmentally aware, anti-meat industry teenager thought this was an ok way to manage dinner.
But not our twelve-year-old daughter. She sat with her back to us as far in the prow she could manage, arms crossed, eyes closed. She felt sorry for the fish. “How would it make you feel if you were out swimming peacefully and some person came and caught you for dinner”, she exclaimed.
Although her pity for the fish slightly ruined the experience I felt deep appreciation for her ability to feel and express empathy. This human capacity is one of the most important glue keeping societies together.
Just think of how many times you have told your child not to hurt others or take their toys away because they will be sad. Most children are very perceptive to such a comment and soon enough they convey the wisdom to other children around them.
Imagine having a child who does not seem to feel pity or remorse and when punished for the behaviour, seems neither to understand, nor care. Those traits are termed callous-unemotional and are a serious prognostic sign of later antisocial behaviour.
Children with callous-unemotional traits also tend to have more serious conduct problems and have difficulty identifying people’s emotions correctly. They simply do not resonate with other people’s emotions – let alone that of animals.
The very interesting question, of course, is whether such traits are inherent to a child or a product of its environment.
A review of studies on the influence of callous-unemotional traits on the effects of parenting support programs showed that although these children were more difficult to treat, they did respond to positive parenting strategies and stimulant medication, when adequate. However, they do benefit less from parenting interventions and probably need additional training of e.g. emotion recognition.
Most likely, the answer to whether such traits are inherent to a child or a product of its environment is that children with a genetic vulnerability react to harsh parenting and negative social and economic circumstances, like a child with peanut allergy to a Snickers bar: they just cannot cope. So to be able to survive they tune out of instead of into human relationships, and the vicious circle begins.
I am glad that my daughter did not see my husband cut the fish’s heads. She sat there in the sun, spending time with her fantasies, as she often does.
The stories she writes (although miserably spelled), show a young person with a deep understanding of other people’s emotions and reactions. She describes jealousy, betrayal, and remorse in ways that leave me gaping in amazement. Empathy is a treasure I hope she will always keep – even if it sometimes hurts.