Jessica Sieff: Something broken this way comes

Published 11:36 pm Wednesday, October 6, 2010

SieffstarBack in May, I’d read an article in the New York Times about a psychological study being conducted at the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University.

The study was one of several being done which took a closer look at babies. In this case, the morality of babies. There is a debate between some psychologists and humanists apparently, of whether or not we enter the world as moral creatures.

According to Paul Bloom, who took part in the study and wrote the Times article, Freud was one of those who felt we came into this brand new world cute and cuddly but basically with no moral code whatsoever.

Bloom sums up their argument: “From Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg, psychologists have long argued that we begin life as amoral animals. One important task of society, particularly of parents, is to turn babies into civilized beings — social creatures who can experience empathy, guilt and shame; who can override selfish impulses in the name of higher principles; and who will respond with outrage to unfairness and injustice.”

Bloom questions the theory and says he thinks the view that we give birth to these tiny humans completely devoid of any moral thought may be mistaken.

Either way, it got me thinking.

Despite whether the tiny humans of the world have a sense of right or wrong or good or bad or nice or mean or they have to be taught those concepts, when we see them grow up to be the kind of midsize humans who set out in a purposeful manner to hurt another — something broken this way comes. And the brokenness is we.

I’d forgotten all about Bloom’s article until the death of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student and promising violinist whose death from a jump off the George Washington Bridge made headlines everywhere.

Clementi’s death came after his roommate broadcast a video recorded on his webcam of Clementi and another man being intimate. The roommate, Dharun Ravi, thought broadcasting his roommate’s personal life for the Web to see was funny.

I go back to the babies.

They’re so cute as babies. Sure, they don’t know not to hit mommy or daddy in the forehead with the bright red wood block with a letter of the alphabet on it. But we tell them no; we teach them right from wrong.

Don’t we?

Because here’s the thing: kids are mean. And when left alone, they grow up to be mean adults. Sometimes brutally mean.

So how do we get from cute little babies to innocent little 5-year-olds whose whole hands fit into the palm of your own to ridiculously cruel?

I have a hard time believing that aside from neuro and psychological disorders, that cruelty is natural. Rather, I’m a firm believer that hurting others is unnatural.

That thinking it’s OK to hate someone else; to hurt someone else is just a matter of fact. I have a hard time believing that being good is really that big of a challenge.

Because nine times out of 10, we start out that way.

We start out good. We start out wondering what our own hands and noses are. We start out wanting to know the way. The way to get another cookie, the way to get an extra hour of TV time. The way to make it down the hallway to the classroom for the first time. The way to avoid getting hurt ourselves.

So where do the broken bits lay? In the laps of parents? Or is it the teachers’ fault? Or maybe somehow politicians — we blame them for everything right?

Here’s the answer. It lies in you. And me. And the guy next to you. And this isn’t any “it takes a village” crap.

This is hardcore. This is the next time you see a kid, you remember they’re an impressionable kid. And you treat them that way. This is the next time your friend acts completely inappropriate you call them out. This is the next time you hear something cruel, you speak up. And get loud.

Life is not a sit back and watch them grow kind of process.

It’s work.

It’s roll up your sleeves and make sure the little tiny humans we put in this world, all wrapped up in cute innocence don’t turn out to be your next greatest enemy.

Jessica Sieff is a reporter for Leader Publications. Reach her at