How Do We Cultivate Compassion in our Kids?
How do we, as parents, help our kids experience and develop compassion? It’s a concern of mine as I look around me and notice my family’s eyes glued to screens and those activities encroaching on my child’s attention. And when he looks up, is he so busy with summer camp, friends or other extracurriculars that he can only focus on his own needs? But then I recalled my son engaging in a small act of compassion without my prompting and I had reason for hope. It cued me into ways to foster compassion in our children.
I recalled it was morning circle time at preschool. Parents and kids were gathered on the floor to listen and participate. We typically sang a song together and the teacher shared announcements. My son’s friend, Tony was itching to tell my son E something. He squirmed in his seat. A few times, he caught himself starting a conversation and then would clamp his hand down on his mouth turning back to face his teacher. He knew he should be listening. I noticed E was aware of his eagerness too.
After circle time, E turned to Tony and asked, “What do you want to tell me?” Tony started and stopped numerous times struggling to find the words. You could see by his wide-eyed expression that this was incredibly important to him. E remained patient while Tony stuttered as his classmates hurried around him heading to the various play stations to start the day. Finally, Tony told E that his Dad couldn’t stay for the morning circle. Last evening, his Dad had fallen in the basement and it had resulted in a bad headache that morning. I watched as E listened so intently to a story that took far longer than a preschooler’s typical attention span. I hung back and noticed E making eye contact and waiting while Tony got out his full story. After, E asked, “Did the fall hurt?” He waited again patiently for Tony’s response and then asked, “Do you think he’s going to be okay today?” Tony assured himself as much as he assured E that yes, his Dad was going to be okay. And I watched as the two of them ran off to the sand table to play, Tony now smiling.
The word compassion means “to suffer together.” Though empathy is related – understanding the thoughts and feelings of another – compassion takes those feelings a step further with the desire to act on those feelings to provide help or support. Sometimes that help or support requires great effort and grand gestures although more often, it involves patience, understanding, listening and being there for a person who is clearly in pain. To truly show compassion is difficult. First, it requires noticing what’s going with others – their thoughts and feelings. So the first step toward compassion is empathy, which alone is tough to master. But then, after we work to feel others’ emotions, we must allow ourselves to “hang in there” with them to help them through whatever it is they are going through.
Adults can become quite adept at shutting down those feelings since, through experience, they know it’s going to be painful. Often we feel we have enough pain of our own. So we feel we are unable to take on another’s. Yet the deepest intimacies and connections are formed through our allowance of that kind of compassion. Daniel Goleman, bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence and Focus, The Hidden Driver of Excellence, says our brains are hard-wired for helping others so that in order to become compassionate, we simply have to notice that another is suffering. He told a story in his TED Talk about seeing a man shirtless and on the ground in the subway. He noticed multitudes of people just walking over him not really noticing him. Daniel bent down to check on him and when he did, suddenly, a dozen others noticed. They found he was starving and had passed out. So in mere minutes, that man was sipping orange juice, holding a hot dog and being revived through the nourishment of strangers. It all started with noticing.
Recently, my friend and collaborator, Shannon Wanless, a developmental psychologist said so eloquently, “It is those small everyday moments that define the parent that we are.” So true. And with that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how we might cultivate compassion with our family members.
Notice hurt or suffering. Because of our automatic tendency to avoid pain, we have to actively work to notice other’s pain. Otherwise, our default may kick in and we may not see what or who is right in front of us. As we notice and comment to our children on other’s pain, we build awareness in our children. My son has always been fascinated by ambulances. But as we know, there is a painful back story to every siren’s call. So I talk about that with my son each time one passes by us. And we think about those individuals, family members and the emergency medical team with the person and hope they will be okay.
Model and practice listening skills. As Steven Covey wrote, “When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it’s like giving them emotional oxygen.” E did that for his friend Tony in preschool and helped him return to his play and learning. We all can use practice in our busy lives. Some listening skills to practice are
- Active listening is listening to fully understand what the person is saying, both thoughts and feelings. Wait until the person is clearly finished. A response could be a simple “Yes!” or “Uh-huh.” or “I get it.” Make eye contact and practice placing your full focus on the speaker.
- Providing wait time is particularly important with children but can also be important with adults. We get anxious with our own needs and thoughts and jump in
before the speaker can complete his thought. Providing wait time can allow for deeper thinking and better responses particularly when you ask questions of others. What you may perceive as awkward silence may actually provide the space for the speaker to formulate her thoughts and come back to you with a well-considered response.
- Paraphrasing is echoing back to the person a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. It may seem awkward at first. But this step is an important way to teach children how to listen for comprehension. It forces the listeners to step up their game as they are going to be “on the spot” to communicate back what you have said.
- Seeking clarification is something that we, as adults, may do naturally. Particularly if we are listening with the intent to learn something from the speaker, we seek clarification on details so that we are certain we understand. Practice seeking clarification with your child and reinforce when they are able to do it on their own. Mom, for example, might say to Dad: “What did you mean when you said you weren’t happy this morning. What happened?”
- Questioning or commenting with empathy takes practice. Instead of responding to a speaker with your own opinions or experiences, you focus solely on the content of what has been communicated. Avoid using “I” in your response. An example might be, my son said, “Today Mrs. Smith started a new project. We are going to be building fairy tree houses. I can’t wait.” As a parent, I might be tempted to respond with, “I built a bird house when I was in school.” which focuses back on me. Instead you might say, “Okay. Sounds like you are excited about this project. What else besides sticks do we need to collect?” This empathetic pattern of speaking and listening may come naturally to some but to children, it is a major challenge and requires experience. Your modeling will make a difference in their own comfort with this style of communication.
Demonstrate care. Take a moment to examine your own approach to others. Are you accepting of family members? Neighbors? Colleagues? Friends? Do your conversations with your spouse include statements of understanding, compassion and empathy for those who are different or even who may challenge you? Whether you believe your child is listening or not, the perceptions of you and your partner are internalized by your child and become your family’s culture. Taking some time to reflect on your own values and how you communicate interpersonal problems among family members can set the tone for how your child deals with the outside world.
Use caring conversation tools. Some schools teach children to use a hand signal – thumb pointed to self and pinky finger pointed outward – to offer a “Me too!” while someone is sharing an experience. This allows for connection without interruption. Also practice identifying the feeling in any thoughts shared. For example, “How do you think that made Dad feel today when his boss called him into his office?” And also, distinguish between a person and her choices. A child is tempted to say “I don’t like Billy.” when Billy takes her toy. Instead help her rephrase and reframe her thoughts to say “I don’t like that Billy took my toy.” Every child makes poor choices but each child can feel like they still belong in a family, classroom or friendship circle.
Encourage cross-age kindness and connection. Whether you have siblings or neighbors of various ages, there is an opportunity to create relationships with children who are different – going through different developmental milestones and experiencing different friendships and curricula during the school day. This becomes great practice for acceptance and inclusion. Do not allow siblings or children in a neighborhood group to be marginalized. Encourage your child to be the one to reach out and include the child who is being left out. With siblings, encourage older siblings to care for younger ones and involve them in play at the level they are able.
Discuss what it means to be a good friend. What it means to be a friend can be a regular topic for conversation to revisit as your child grows and changes. What does it mean to you to be a good friend? How do you feel when you are excluded? How can you make new children in your school or neighborhood feel welcome? It’s easy to tell children what not to do (and important in establishing boundaries) but it’s equally important to think through with them what they can and should do instead.
As I reflected on cultivating compassion, I realized, as a parent, I have to lead the way. I have to take those everyday moments to notice the ambulance and the people inside it, to notice the neighbor who is struggling to bring in her garbage can and the friend whose face is wrinkled with worries. My simple intention to do this – to notice – will make all of the difference in raising a compassionate child.
Picture Books on Compassion:
Just Because by Rebecca Elliott
A brother loves his sister who has exceptional needs just because.
Rabbit’s Gift by George Shannon
Woodland animals pass on to each other a turnip left as an anonymous gift.
Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Williams
Two young Afghani girls in a refugee camp share one pair of sandals.
The Can Man by Laura E. Williams
A young boy wants to earn money for a skateboard by collecting cans but changes his mind after seeing a homeless man also collecting cans.
Young Adult Fiction:
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Born with a facial deformity, a fifth-grade boy deals with trying to be ordinary while the kids around him act either kind and brave or horribly and mean.
Daniel Goleman’s TED Talk on compassion: