Every great culture values kindness and acts of compassion. Loving your neighbor, being kind, cherishing each individual for her unique gifts are all behaviors and attitudes most parents want to see in their children. Sometimes it’s easier to donate some canned foods or even go on a volunteer trip to another country than it is to be kind to the people right next to us.
How can we as parents help our children be compassionate? Here are six steps that parents can take.
- Start Early
In her enlightening book, Why Love Matters, Sue Gerhardt explains that the relationship between early affection, stability, and support modifies brain development: by age six months, most of our hormone functions and our ability to empathize is set! Raising a compassionate child starts with a healthy pregnancy and continues through early infancy. Children at this age develop best when their parents are in control of their own feelings. An emotionally regulated parent passes the trait on to her child.
A person needs to learn self-regulation and trust before he can have real empathy for another. Experiencing too much anger and frustration (his own, or his parents’) and not learning adaptive self-soothing makes it hard for the developing brain to care, genuinely, for others. When distressed, we are awash in stress hormones. Too much sends us into a “fight/flight/freeze” response, with no time to worry about how others are feeling.
- Model Empathy
When children are small, our interactions with them model the empathy that precedes compassionate acts. Treating your child with empathy teaches her to perceive and understand another’s pain, and it helps her become compassionate toward others. Allow a child to express her feelings, even if they cast you in a bad light:
Child: “I hate you Mommy.”
Parent: “Wow, that must be really horrible, to hate your own mommy. I can see you aren’t happy with me.”
When you empathize with your sad child, she learns how to empathize with a sad character in a story you read together. When you pat your child and say, “Poor baby, that must have hurt,” after she whacks her head on the table, she is more likely to do the same thing to her teddy bear when it falls down the stairs. If you berate her for crying when she is sad or hurt, she’ll be more likely to criticize others for expressing those feelings – not the kind of classmate or teacher that makes the world a better place.
With teenagers, less talk is often more effective. Teens are most likely to perceive parents who listen with concern, but who do not criticize or try to fix things, as being empathetic. The reality is that often the best thing an adult can offer a teen is compassion – the problem may not be solvable, but rather just needs to be survived.
- Promote Understanding
Compassion for others develops not only from empathy but also from understanding. Understand the reason behind another person’s odd behaviors and it is easier to have empathy and accept the person, odd behavior and all. Children with learning differences may need more explicit help to understand another person and act compassionately, even if they are generally caring.
Children generally understand that treatment differs as needs differ. For example, a preschooler is excused behavior that wouldn’t be acceptable in a teen, and an emerging reader might be expected to read less aloud than a sibling. For the less visible challenges, like learning differences, people may initially judge an individual negatively, and then need to view them with more understanding when they learn of the challenges the person faces every day.
- Encourage Courage
Start early: model support for the underdog, respect for the free thinker and other courageous attributes, even if you encourage your child to behave more conventionally. As children head to middle school, acting with compassion becomes both easier and more difficult. Eleven to 18-year-olds have more developed and interconnected social brains, making it easier to perceive another’s distress or discomfort. A middle-schooler can think hypothetically and imagine herself not having anyone to sit with during lunch or the humiliation of having the “wrong” kind of clothes or bag or hair or whatever is deemed important by the current popular culture.
This empathy, however, does not automatically translate into acting with compassion. The same cognitive maturity that helps a teenager imagine another’s embarrassment also makes it easy to imagine the reactions of her own peers. What if her kindness is misinterpreted, and her peers think she actually likes that strange kid, or that she doesn’t realize how unacceptable that fashion choice is? With reduced adult supervision and increased autonomy in their relationships, teens may figure that the wiser course is to empathize in silence and not risk social disapproval.
Parents can help their tweens and teens develop the courage to be compassionate..
-First, don’t pretend that this is easy!
-Second, make it clear that you expect your child to be a courageous risk-taker when it comes to acting with compassion. Ask how she would like to be treated if she found herself in a culture where everything she did was wrong.
-Third, be proud of her for standing up for the underdog, the misunderstood or the person who simply made a mistake. Doing so not only rewards her behavior, it reminds her that all people have value, a reassuring thought for someone navigating the teenage years.
Finally, realize that sometimes people fail to act with compassion because they aren’t sure what to do. Encourage your child by reminding her that even the smallest act of kindness matters. A smile and a ‘thank-you’ can make a huge difference in someone’s day.
- Value Humility
Many children with intellectual, social, artistic and athletic gifts find it challenging to understand that some people, even when meaning well and trying hard, may not be very capable. Humility is an important element of compassion. Look for teaching moments, and use them gently. For example, your child gives you the wrong address, and you drive miles out of the way. Respond first with compassion, “Wow, you must have been really confused,” and then teach, “Imagine if you had dyslexia and made mistakes like this all the time. Every day in school would be this exhausting.” Your soccer player makes the error that loses the game? First the compassionate response: “Tess, I know you’re heartbroken,” and then “It stinks to be the one that everyone is glaring at.” Remember to be gentle. Teaching humility encourages compassionate acts; humiliating someone lays the groundwork for bullying.
Making your child the center of your world and over-inflating the child’s self-esteem can distort her grasp of what it means to be a contributing member of the community. If grades, honors, money, possessions and social status are what seem to matter most, a teen is likely to cling tightly to what she has. She may figure, “Why risk what’s valuable on helping someone who won’t help me get ahead?”
Parents need to be able to respect this question as valid and continue to insist that kindness and altruism are valuable in and of themselves. Adults must help the child and teenager see beyond herself to the greater social fabric that supports us all.
- Model Compassion
A powerful way to model compassion is to treat your own challenges – large and small – with a bit of compassion. To accept one’s own weaknesses and limits goes a long way in helping to accept the weaknesses and limits of others. Lost your keys? Most of us react by berating our own stupidity or bewailing our fate. Instead, be compassionate with yourself. If your child hears you say, “Wow, I must really be distracted,” she will have a sense that yes, you too do the best that you can, and that sometimes, your best might not be so good. This gives her permission to treat her own mistakes with compassion, and by extension, have compassion for others. Be honest about how difficult it is sometimes to be compassionate.
As a parent, you are your child’s first and most influential teacher. One of the most important lessons you can teach is compassion, especially in a world that gets increasingly more diverse and complex. Amidst the laundry and the homework and doing a great job at work, it is possible to provide a secure and nurturing base, model empathy, promote understanding of differences in other people, give your child the courage to act the right way, value humility and demonstrate compassion through your own behavior. Not easy, but you get points just for trying! In times when you feel that you’ve fallen short of your goal, be sure to have a little compassion for yourself.
Happy Mothers and Others Day! Everything you do matters.