01/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mothers, Empathy, and Child Neglect

It's a mistake to think that child-rearing is independent of time and place. The way we rear children has changed through history and it differs from one place to another. What also changes are views about child neglect. Is it child neglect to swaddle an infant in a tight cloth cocoon, only the infant's head visible, then hang the cocoon on a hook on the wall and leave it there for many hours? This was a common practice in America three hundred years ago and considered sophisticated parenting.

These days psychologists and psychiatrists are renewing their attention to the definition, consequences, and causes of child neglect. The Spanish psychologists Joaquin De Paul and Maria Guibert (Child Abuse & Neglect, 2008 32:1063-1071) have developed an interesting theoretical model whose focus is maternal empathy as the key variable in shaping the interaction between mother and child. The central idea of the theory is that neglectful parents have a deficit in empathic emotion. The deficit can be due to mental retardation, alcohol or drug abuse, or severe mental health problems. But the deficit can also exist in parents with none of these difficulties--"ordinary" parents without any apparent clinical problems.

So what exactly is empathy? It's the ability to imagine or feel the emotions of another person--in this case the emotions of an infant or young child. In cognitive science, empathy is considered an important part of what's called "theory of mind"--the understanding that we have of what's going on in someone else's mind when we interact with them. Theory of mind is of great importance in social cognition--our "intuitive" estimation of the links and interactions between ourselves and other people. Social cognition is what makes it possible for us to live together in a society. Without it society disintegrates into isolated individuals without bonding. Social cognition has evidently been evolving for millions of years in primates, and we humans not only have it in a highly developed form but we depend on it for our very existence.

Parental empathy especially rules the interaction between parents and a pre-verbal infant. But empathic interaction can be deficient, and as De Paul and Guibert point out, there's more than one way that can happen:

1. In some cases, a mother just lacks empathy. People with autistic disorders usually lack empathy. Many people with a psychosis such as schizophrenia lack empathy. Criminal sociopaths (also called psychopaths) lack empathy. Empathy is absent in certain people with damage to the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

2. Empathy may be present in the mother, but the context is such that satisfying the needs of the child may be overruled by needs of the mother, and the mother chooses to be selfish.

3. The mother is capable of empathy, but she avoids empathy and its possible inconvenient consequences by avoiding the child. Before the 20th century, "baby-farming"--sending an infant to be nursed and cared for elsewhere--was common in England and America in the middle and upper classes. There are parallels in modern society.

4. In the social milieu of the mother, ignoring the needs of infants may be accepted practice and considered part of the "training" of children.

So what are the consequences? One insidious consequence is that mothers who just lack empathy--or who fail to manifest or act on empathy for other reasons--produce children who themselves have empathy deficits, and these children, when they have children themselves, will carry the consequence to future generations. The result is that empathy deficits can be transgenerational and in contradiction to the apparent thrust of human evolution.

In the limit, a human society without empathy degenerates into selfishness, cruelty, and mutual destruction. It's a fallacy to think the interaction between a mother and an infant is based simply on "instincts"--an unfolding of a simple script. The human story is more complicated than that.