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Listening to children with empathy – the ethical case

In this piece, Soizic le Courtois argues that advice given to parents should draw on scientific evidence about children's subjective wellbeing, children's perspectives and the contribution of any practice to children's development and outcomes. We should also be attuned to our empathetic responses to children, which can give us clues about the "right" thing to do.

Shifting perspectives on the ‘right’ way to raise children

In 2019, France passed a law that made it illegal to use any kind of corporal, verbal or psychological punishment on children– including smacking. Scotland outlawed physical punishment in 2020, then Wales in 2022. English politicians, however, have no plans to follow suit, for now. Paediatricians recently published a report asking the Government to outlaw corporal punishment, arguing that the blurred line with abuse puts children at risk. In addition, it has damaging effects in the long run: children who are disciplined using corporal punishment are more at risk of aggressivity and poor mental health in adulthood. But despite the Children’s Commissioner’s support for the change, the current UK Government was quoted as refusing to consider the request because parents should be free to discipline their child as they wish (there are some indications this might change if a Labour Government wins the upcoming election).

Some academics continue to debate the effectiveness of corporal punishment for modifying children’s behaviour in the short term. But whether or not these approaches are evidence-based and effective in the short term, we must still ask ourselves if they are right. This requires us to think beyond short-term efficacy or long-term harm, to also consider children’s rights and their experiences in the here-and-now.

Empathy and ethical considerations

In contrast to the UK, smacking was made illegal in Sweden over 40 years ago. This means that anyone under the age of 40 in Sweden has never known their country as one where it was acceptable for disciplining children to involve hurting them. Before the new law was introduced in France, documentary maker Marion Cuerq showed Swedish families footage of adults disciplining children in the French version of the show Supernanny. Their response was dismay and shock, many were moved to tears. One parent told her child he shouldn’t watch. Growing up in a country where they had never experienced smacking, they saw adults hurting and humiliating children ‘to teach them a lesson’ as not only self-defeating but wrong.

Two aspects to the Swedish families’ response are illuminating:

The first, which is the basis for Cuerq’s research, is that the sociocultural beliefs and expectations we carry because of where we grow up shape how we view children’s behaviour and how we think we ought to respond to it. For example, if we are told – by friends, parents and doctors, but also by movies and books and magazines – that a crying child is trying to manipulate us, we are going to come to see a child crying as manipulation, and we are more likely to respond accordingly (i.e. harshly), than if we see a child crying as needing comfort and safety. Mindsets and shared beliefs in society can change over time. Science may play a role in this: Research on children’s development and neuroscience can tell us a lot about what is going on in children’s minds and bodies when they struggle to regulate their emotions, and about the importance of warm and responsive interactions between parent and child. Sharing this science might change how we, as a society, understand and talk about children, our expectations and responses to them.

The second important aspect of the Swedish parents’ response was their visible emotion. The moral ‘wrongness’ they perceived was not only experienced (or even primarily) on an intellectual, rational basis, but also an emotional one which had its roots in their empathy for the children’s suffering.

Listening with the heart

There is increasing recognition that children have been treated as second-class citizens for too long. Children’s rights should be protected and promoted, and this involves paying attention to their experiences in the present rather than simply framing them as adults-in-waiting. Children’s wellbeing matters because children matter, not just because it will have an impact in the long term on their wellbeing and contribution as adult members of society, and their costs or contributions to the economy.

Researchers play an important role in shaping the kinds of advice given to parents by those in positions of trust, but also have an important ethical mission to listen to children’s experiences, to value their subjective wellbeing in the here and now. Understanding children’s perspectives and experiences forms an important strand of evidence and research. This involves listening with empathy, not only to what children are telling us with words, but, as Loris Malaguzzi used to say, with the ‘hundred languages of children’ .

In making decisions about, and on behalf of children, we can balance considerations about long term benefits, current wellbeing and children’s own perspectives and rights.

We should also recognise that decisions are not made on the basis of scientific evidence alone. There is inevitably an ethical dimension to the decisions we make about and on behalf of children which requires us to engage with children’s perspectives, and this requires empathy. Empathy is key to our ability to connect with the experiences of children and to recognise their suffering.

Sometimes we ignore our empathetic responses to children. In some contexts, caregivers do feel empathy, but they may have learned to block out this empathic response because they were told by people in positions of authority – through books or parenting advice – to ignore children’s distress in the name of discipline or in the mistaken belief that it supports child development. We are then pulled in two opposite directions: do we listen to our head, or do we listen to our heart?

The argument here is that both are important. Our empathy gives us an important signal about children’s experiences, and we can choose to tune into it and respond to it. We can listen to our heads and our hearts.

Further reading (and watching):

Caring: a relational approach to ethics and moral education, 2nd Edition (Noddings, 2012)

Unbeatable (Même qu’on naît imbattables), documentary by Marion Cuerq & Elsa Moley

The 100 languages of children, poem by Loris Malaguzzi (Founder of Reggio Emilia schools)

The book you wish your parents had read (and your children will be glad that you did) (Perry, 2019)

Because I said so: Why society is childist and how breaking the cycle of discrimination towards children can change the world (Ockwell-Smith, 2023)

Listening to young children: Multiple voices, meanings and understandings (book chapter, Wood, 2009, IN Working with children in the Early Years, edited by Cable, Miller and Goodliff)