During the past few weeks I have been exploring the idea of compassion, along with many others in the blogosphere, in response to the #1000Speak for Compassion project.
In a TED Talk I shared in a previous post Joan Halifax questioned why, if compassion was so important, didn’t we teach it to children.
That question provided me with a challenge. Indeed I wondered if the question was really fair. The question implied that children were not being taught compassion. And while that assumption may be true for many, it is just as true that many children are being taught to be compassionate – in their homes, in their schools, and in other groups to which they belong. By recognizing the many who do, I in no way wish to indicate that enough is being done. Indeed, much more needs to be done, but let’s not make a sweeping statement that attempts to colour everyone with the same inadequacy in teaching compassion.
I decided to investigate just what ideas were available for teaching children compassion. I had to look no further than one of my blogging friends for evidence that children are being taught compassion through their daily activities. In a number of posts on her own blog Lemon Shark, and in a number of comments on mine, Sarah Brentyn has described practices that she uses to teach her children to be compassionate by involving them in compassionate acts.
Some practices that Sarah recommends for developing compassion include things from as simple as using common courtesies and good manners to volunteering and making personal donations to homeless shelters.
I defy you to read her post 1000 Voices for Compassion without being moved by her generosity and compassion. It tells a beautiful story of compassion in action, a lesson for not only her children, but for all of us.
In her following post entitled Defining Compassion vs. Compassion in Action Sarah described asking her children what the word “compassion” meant. They weren’t sure how to answer her. But when she asked them to describe something compassionate they had no difficulty coming up with examples – from their own lives. Why? Because from the moment they were born Sarah’s children have been living in a compassionate world. They have been treated compassionately and they have not only had compassionate actions modelled for them, they have been involved in those compassionate actions. I congratulate you Sarah, for inspiring us to be compassionate, and for being a role model for us to emulate.
Looking beyond Sarah’s examples for further suggestions, I came across a number of other articles. Each seemed to reiterate what Sarah had already shared.
In an article for the Huffington Post Signe Whitson, author and child and adolescent therapist, says that “experts agree that fostering compassion in young people is among the best ways to prevent verbal, physical, and emotional aggression” and shares 8 Ways to Teach Compassion to Kids:
- Walk the walk
“Show young people that anytime is the right time to engage in acts of service and compassion for others.”
- Put the Child on the Receiving End of Compassion
“tending to a child when he is feeling down or under the weather is the best way to teach him how to show compassion to others.”
- Talk the Talk
“talk explicitly about acts of compassion . . . communicate its importance as a prized family value”
- Volunteer Your Time
“When children become actively involved I acts of showing compassion to others, they learn about his value in a very deep and enduring way”
- Care for a Pet
“Children who care for pets learn important values such as responsibility, unconditional love, empathy, and compassion for all living things”
- Read All About It
“Children’s books are great for providing a window into the experiences of others.”
- Compassion It TM
Wear a Compassion It band as a daily and “personal reminder to act compassionately towards someone else”
- Make a Wish
The “Make-a-Wish Foundation provides hope, strength, and joy to children with life-threatening medical conditions . . . can have a truly impactful experience of being able to provide tangible help and joy to a peer”
Other than the references to the specific organizations, Compassion it and Make a Wish Foundation, the suggestions are things that have been discussed before in various posts about compassion, including Sarah’s.
Like Sarah, Whitson believes that it is the accumulation of little everyday actions that make a difference. She states that, as a bullying prevention trainer, she considers “big” solutions — such as policies, procedures, and trainings are trumped each and every day by the seemingly little, yet extraordinarily powerful, acts of compassion and kindness that adults show to the young people in their lives.”
In her article about How to Instill Compassion in Children Marilyn Price-Mitchell agreed about the importance of teaching compassion, saying that “children who participate in programs that teach kindness, respect, empathy, and compassion and who have families that reinforce those strengths at home develop the muscles they need to become civically-engaged adolescents and adults.”
Price-Mitchell suggested that parents could help teach their children compassion by providing opportunities to practice compassion, by helping children understand and cope with anger, and by teaching children to self-regulate.
Jane Meredith Adams, in her article Raising a Compassionate Child says that “children have an inborn capacity for compassion … they naturally identify with stuffed animals, other kids, pets, and underdogs. The tricky part is that their empathy must compete with other developmental forces, including limited impulse control – which makes them pull the cat’s tail – and their belief that their needs absolutely must come first – which makes it hard for them to let their cousin push the col fire truck.”
Adams says that teaching compassion is “part of day-to-day life: how you answer your child’s questions, how you solve conflict at the park, how you nudge his or her growing capacity to understand and think about other people.” Adams suggests to “Promote sweetness” every day by showing children how to be gentle to others, by speaking to them softly, by rejecting rudeness, and by saying sorry when you have made a mistake. I think Sarah would agree with all of those.
- Model the kinds of behaviour we expect
- Exercise patience
- Listen to our kids
- Teach resiliency by providing strategies, and
- Use quality educational content to reinforce the concept (e.g. books, DVDs and downloadable material)
I’m sure that many of these suggestions are familiar to you through your own personal experiences, either when growing up or as an adult. I think what my exploration of this topic shows me is that, while it may be useful to teach about compassion in schools, children really only learn to be compassionate if they are treated compassionately and have compassion modeled for them, if it is an integral part of their everyday lives.
What do you think?
Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post.