Ethics are the frameworks we use to guide our choices. The type of ethics we use depends on capacities first initiated in early life. A cooperative character will make choices with empathy as a guide.
We want our children to be kind trailblazers— creative enough to solve the world’s problems. This requires both a good “heart” and the “grit” necessary to reach character-guided goals. The experience of highly responsive, nurturing parenting best supports these ends since it’s correlated with secure attachment and wedded to a development that undergirds compassionate ethics.
As ENI Co-Founder and Research Director, Darcia Narvaez, PhD, has examined in Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality (link), ethical orientations are rooted in unconscious emotional systems, shaped by early childhood experience. These orientations can predispose one to react to and act on life events in more (or less) “character-driven” ways (2). These are difficult to change later, though excellent school programs (e.g., social and emotional learning, character education) can offer a nurturing environment for further growth or remediation.
When early life lacks evolved nurturing, for example, with minimal responsiveness or lack of nurturing touch, rigid self-protectionism develops. Because one feels unsafe routinely, instincts for self-preservation are enhanced. When protectionism dominates the personality, one is easily stressed and self-focused. In situations of perceived threat, one moves easily into social opposition (aggression, control) or social withdrawal (submission, giving up). Of course, these reactions are not conducive to collaboration with others, to wise, integrative thought, or to creativity—all hallmarks of innovation.
Protectionism perceives choices with filters of threat and safety, leaving little room for the elaborate perspective-taking or thinking outside the box necessary for character-driven action or innovation. In other words, when operating from protectionism it’s difficult to be wisely creative, curious, conscientious—or blaze any responsible trails, except to blow things up or run away.
In contrast, with evolved nurturing, social engagement develops as a matter of course. Social engagement involves full emotional presence and flexible relational attunement. It emerges from prosocial emotions like empathy, reverence and gratitude and makes for happy kids. Combined with imaginative capabilities, social engagement perceives life holistically, fuels wise, sustainable innovation and the true, respectful, trail-blazers of tomorrow.