A recent article points out that human beings are inherently social, support justice, and care about each other from an early age. Why don't we build on that human reality to make a more humane society whose focus is personal development, mutual support and caring?
Don't we need those characteristics during difficult economic times? If indeed we are facing a need for sacrifice and a need to change how society works due to the pressures of global warming and depletion of fossil fuels, we should as a society (let me know if YOU are in a country where this is being done) study and implement ways of teaching thoughtful behavior to children as a guiding principle. We should also have a program of public service announcements emphasizing the good neighbor aspect in each of us, for the benefit of both children and adults. I am sure we can find many more ways to reach the adult and child populations of the world and open up a dialogue on how to live better.
You may believe it is hard or even impossible to teach "values" without veering off into the controversy of religious messages, or perhaps avoid that by providing meaningless content for such a curriculum. However, I have been involved with Ethical Culture, and such learning is the backbone of the personal development aspect in Ethical Culture (balanced with social activism). Ethical Culture is theism-neutral i.e. does not take a position on the existence of a God, but considers itself a religion. And, even with no formal affiliation to a religous organization, learning of values can be carried out in a way that should offend no one.
For one example I located, look at this article from the Partnership for Learning Web site. OK, it is simplistic, but it touches on some valuable approaches to explicitly valuing social positive behaviors and thoughts. A more sophisticated and systematic approach can be found in many places as well. Here is one from the Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education. This kind of teaching does not interfere with religious beliefs a family may have, but rather teaches the "Good Samaritan" values and variants thereof that every mainstream religion, as well as humanism, points to.
According to many experts on environment and society, the persistence of our values and civilization will need to be based on a cohesive society where individuals help each other despite tough times.
I think it is long past the time when we should have had a non-religious but value-based way of emphasizing the inherent good qualities in each of us. If this is not done, those instincts can be lost by the time adulthood is achieved. Although this study did not address changes between childhood and adulthood, it seems that adults will have less of their natural empathy being active. We should not allow that to happen to such a valuable natural resource.
From the article:
Children between the ages of seven and 12 appear to be naturally inclined to feel empathy for others in pain, according to researchers at the University of Chicago, who used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans to study responses in children. The responses on the scans were similar to those found in studies of adults. Researchers found that children, like adults, show responses to pain in the same areas of their brains. The research also found additional aspects of the brain activated in children, when youngsters saw another person intentionally hurt by another individual.
"This study is the first to examine in young children both the neural response to pain in others and the impact of someone causing pain to someone else," said Jean Decety, Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, who reported the findings in the article, "Who Caused the Pain? An fMRI Investigation of Empathy and Intentionality in Children," published in the currrent issue of Neuropsychologia. Joining him as co-authors were University students Kalina Michalska and Yuko Aktsuki.