Nancy Eisenberg’s model of moral development is based on the assertion that most children’s and adolescents’ moral dilemmas involve a choice between serving one’s own interests and those of others. She divides moral reasoning into four stages: hedonistic orientation (concern with one’s own pleasure), needs-oriented orientation (concern with others’ need for help), stereotyped approval-focused orientation (concern with one’s appearance as a “good person”) and empathic orientation (concern with others’ feelings and the impact of one’s actions upon those feelings.)
We see evidence of all these kinds of reasoning in our students. I am repeatedly struck, however, by the lack of empathic orientation, not only among our students but also in the world at large. (I am plagued by one of Albert Ellis’ irrational beliefs – that people should behave with kindness and consideration at all times, and are “damnable villains” if they don’t. This is not to say that I myself live up to this standard.)
I find myself more and more irritated, as I get older, by students walking into me in the halls, letting doors slam in my face, wandering in late to class, talking when I’m trying to lecture, shouting in the hallway outside my classroom or office door, and otherwise being inconsiderate. I also find myself surprised when students do show empathy – the young man who, every class during group work, abandons his friends without being asked in order to work with the blind student who needs extra assistance; the student who apologizes for interrupting my lunch and offers to come back later; the student who writes (after the grades have been submitted!) to thank me for all the extra time I spent with him and tell me that he really enjoyed the course.
Just as adolescents tend to prioritize different things than adults do (see the post “adolescent and adult decision-making processes”), adolescents also, often, tend to have a different view of their responsibilities to others, and a different (often lesser) ability to associate others’ feelings with their own.
By continuing to feel outraged when students don’t show empathy – when they talk when I am talking, cheat on their essays and then waste my time trying to insist that they didn’t, do not consider my convenience when it comes to keeping appointments or showing up late to class, or disrupt classroom time without any thought for the students around them who want to do their work – I’m doing nothing to help them and am making myself crazy. There are all sorts of reasons that people (including me) may not yet have reached a level of empathic understanding that I expect from them.
It seems more sensible to take a deep breath, to show appreciation for those who are considerate, and to let practical consequences speak for themselves for those who aren’t (“No, I can’t see you right now; our appointment was for yesterday”) or, in some cases, to express my annoyance calmly (“Of course I’ll help you, but the truth is, considering your behavior in class yesterday, I’m not feeling very enthused – maybe we could talk about that first.”)
(This post was adapted from an analytical response to the following text:
Kail, R., Cavanaugh, J. C., & Ateah, C. A. (2006) Emerging Adulthood (Canadian ed.) Custom Edition of Human Development: A Life-Span View. Scarborough, Ont.: Thomson Custom Publishing.
I wrote the original analysis for an MEd course.)