Why We Treat Others as We Have Been Treated

By Jessie Stern, Ph.D. and Rachel Samson, M.Psych 

Research reveals a twist on the Golden Rule. 

KEY POINTS 

  • Parents’ interpersonal strengths, such as kindness, love, and social intelligence, matter for nurturing these same strengths in their children. 
  • People learn through first-hand experience. When people recall someone who was kind to them, they are kinder toward strangers, research shows. 
  • Instead of punishing children to reinforce good behaviour, parents can set limits in ways that prioritise children’s experiences and empathy. 

“We do as we have been done by.” – John Bowlby, A Secure Base (1988) 

Family lore tells a paradoxical story of my grandmother: When other children came over to play with my mother and her siblings, my grandmother would fix them peanut butter sandwiches-the crusts delicately removed from the bread for “the guests” but inevitably left on for her own children. 

The message served up with those peanut butter sandwiches was, this is how we ought to treat guests in our home, but also: guests are worthy of kindness, but you are not. In many ways, my grandmother was a role model of 1950s-era generosity in her community, sometimes taking in children whose parents were absent or struggling. Yet within her own family, she was often critical and withholding. The kindness that she modelled to others and instructed her children to emulate was not ultimately what they experienced-kindness was seen but not felt

One of the most important things we’ve learned from research on child development is a twist on the Golden Rule: We often treat others the way we ourselves were treated.

Tracing the family line further back, my grandmother had endured great unkindness herself, having been placed in an orphanage by her own mother and later adopted by an aunt and uncle who showed her little warmth or care. 

We now know that trauma experienced in childhood is transmitted intergenerationally, but so is family strength and resilience. Parents’ empathy specifically for their child has been linked to children’s secure attachment; secure attachment, in turn, is shown to support youth’s own developing capacity for empathy. Both fathers’ and mothers’ interpersonal strengths-including kindness, love, and social intelligence-matter for nurturing these same strengths in the next generation of children and adolescents. 

The Power of Experience 

“[O]ne generation full of deeply loving parents would change the brain of the next generation, and with that, the world” -Charles Raison 

So much of what we learn as children-and adults-is experience-dependent. First-hand experience, especially when repeated over time, literally shapes the brain and nervous system, with downstream consequences for the way we engage with the world around us, deal with emotions, and behave socially. 

  • We don’t learn to walk by being told to walk; we learn to walk by experiencing walking. 
  • We don’t learn to love by being instructed to love; we learn to love by experiencing love. 
  • We don’t learn to calm down (regulate) by being told to “calm down!”; we learn to calm down by experiencing being calmed (co-regulation). 
  • We don’t learn to respect others by being told to respect others; we learn to respect others by experiencing ourselves and others being respected. 
  • We don’t learn kindness by being told to be kind; we learn kindness by experiencing kindness in our darkest moments (an experience that some have called grace). 

This transforms one of the key questions about raising kids: Perhaps we should ask not how to teach our children kindness, but how we want the children in our lives to experience kindness from us? 

Empathic Discipline 

On this logic, we can’t punish, spank, shame, or guilt kids into being kind, empathic people. For example, though spanking and physical discipline are common ways that parents enforce “good behaviour,” decades of evidence across multiple contexts and cultures demonstrates that this typically backfires. Children who experience corporal punishment are at increased risk for anxiety and depression, behaviour problems, and struggles with substance use as adults. If we want to raise kind, respectful kids, we have to show our kids kindness and respect-and to model these traits toward others. 

This doesn’t mean abandoning limits, boundaries, or discipline-it means transforming how we set limits. Empathic discipline “prioritizes valuing and understanding [children’s] experiences and negative feelings that give rise to misbehavior, sustaining positive relationships… and working with [children] within trusting relationships to improve behavior,” according to Okonofua and colleagues. 

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