Monday, February 13, 2012

From Sworn Enemies to Bosom Buddies

I’m turning this week from sign language with babies to information drawn from my book with Dr. Susan Goodwyn entitled Baby Hearts: A Guide to Giving Your Child an Emotional Head Start.

It’s not uncommon to hear that violence in the world is inevitable because aggression is built into the human species—that it’s “instinctual”—and, therefore, nothing can be done to change it. A very clever study done way back in 1930 by Z. Y. Kuo provides the perfect retort—and hope for the future.

If there’s one behavior that most of us would agree is instinctual, it’s the tendency for cats to stalk and kill rats. Or is it? Kuo decided to find out. First, he took litters of newborn kittens away from their natural mothers. One-third of these he gave to tried-and-true rat-killing moms to raise. Another third he raised by themselves. And the final third he raised with rats! Then, when the kittens were old enough, he tested to see if they would stalk and kill rats in a natural situation. Here’s what he found.

• The kittens raised with rat-killing moms learned from them, 85 % becoming enthusiastic rat-killers.
• The kittens raised alone split about evenly, with 45% easily persuaded to kill rats.
• But of the kittens raised with rats, only 17% ever killed a rat in all his tests!

What’s the point of all this? Here it is, and it’s important. Even something as arguably instinctual as rat-killing can be changed given the right life history. Create an environment early in life that nurtures love, trust, and familiarity rather than violence and hate, and the result is much more peace and harmony.

So, take Kuo’s results as evidence that the lessons you teach your children about compassion and tolerance are both likely to work and one of the only ways we have to chip away at the violence we see around us.

Happy Signing (and don’t forget to follow us on Facebook)!


Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.
Co-Founder, the Baby Signs® Program
Professor Emeritus, UC Davis
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