A few years ago, I took a tumble down a flight of stairs at work resulting in injury to my ankle and face. I suffered a fractured ankle, severe bruising to my face, and a black eye. Once allowed to return home, I hobbled into my apartment to see my two daughters staring at me with a mixture of fear, confusion, and sadness. Seeing the look of panic on their faces I immediately assured them I was “ok”, “everything would be fine”, and “mommy took a tumble down the stairs”. As I made my way to the sofa I continued to feel their anxious stares. I must have drifted off to sleep quickly because when I woke up my bruised eye had been covered with a bandage, a cup of tea had been placed beside me, a slice of my favorite pie had been placed beside the cup of tea, and they say intently watching me sleep.
As it turns out, children have an inborn capacity for compassion. Inherently, children have the capacity to naturally identify with sadness, pain, other children, pets, and the underdogs. As children age and grow, a tricky balancing act occurs, their empathy must compete with other developmental forces, that include limited impulse control and the belief that their needs must come first. Learning to be patient and consider the feelings of others is something that children have the ability to learn if it is promoted and fostered by his/her parents/care providers. Most of us have had the opportunity to witness children throw tantrums when they are tired, hungry, uncomfortable; because they are denied something (toy, candy, etc.) or they are prevented from doing what they want. Learning to manage frustration is a skill that children gain over time.
However, in light of the tension and discord we are experiencing in the world today, it is extremely important to speak to as well as encourage our children to be both tolerant as well as compassionate to others. As adults, we must lead by example, children acquire the bulk of their learning experience by viewing the behaviors of others, specifically, parents and other care providers. Being compassionate is a lifelong process that should be discussed with your child as well as encouraged. Appropriate discussions on compassion should include openly talking about individual differences and answering the difficult questions. Children are very inquisitive, often asking questions about people, things, and the world that adults were unaware the child took notice of. It should be noted, individual temperament also plays a significant role in the manner in which children express emotions, deal with conflict, and respond to the feeling and emotions of others.
Tips to Promote Compassion Include:
· Encourage questions and exploration
· Encourage children to treat themselves and others with care
· Discourage entitlement and rudeness
· Lead by example, i.e., model compassionate and thoughtful behavior
· Remain consistent, i.e., do not treat one set or group of people differently from others
· Accept responsibility for mistakes, i.e., teach children mistakes happen, acknowledge, accept responsibility, and apologize.
· Enforce rules, i.e., consistent limits help children understand their behavior (and misbehavior) affects others
· Provide guidance and structure
· Acknowledge and reward acts of kindness, i.e., “I like the way you helped Jacob care for his cut after he had fallen down”.
· Encourage helping behaviors
· Discourage labeling and name calling
· Give adequate consequences for negative behaviors
As your children age and mature they gain a better understanding of the importance and value of compassion, which can be enhanced by their engagement in compassionate activities (volunteering time at shelters, soup kitchens, donating can goods, etc.). Compassion is contagious, it fosters other essential values that will not only serve children in their later role as adults, but contribute to their overall ability to become tolerant and accepting of others.