Fostering Character Development in Teens  Compassion pt 1

Fostering Character Development in Teens: Compassion, pt 1

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James WellbornLeave a Comment

def. (noun) feeling deep sympathy and concern for the welfare of others

Compassion is a Character-istic valued by every major religion and most spiritual and philosophical traditions.  It represents the impulse to tend to others when they are hurting and support them in times of difficulty.  Compassion is a crucial component of family functioning, friendships and intimate relationships.  With caring and concern for each other as a basic foundation of civil society, an argument can be made that when compassion ceases to be a part of the cultural fabric the fabric of society starts to unravel.  Teaching your kid to be compassionate is as important as ever.

What’s a parent to do?

Character Check*.  As a way to begin, review your kid’s current level of compassion.  Check all that apply.

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  • Sensitive to others’ feelings and needs
  • Responds supportively to signs of distress or emotional upset in others
  • Thinks of others and their needs
  • Rarely judges others
  • “Tuned in” to the feelings and concerns of the people around them
  • Anticipates the needs of others
  • Patient with others
  • Accepts others limitations and flaws
  • Gets upset when others are upset
  • Concerned when others get their feelings hurt
  • Interested in other’s point of view
  • Good at recognizing when people are distressed or emotional
  • Forgiving
  • Understanding (and accepting of) others faults
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The more of these Character-istics you checked off the less you need to worry about devoting time to the development of compassion in your kid.  (Remember, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.)  On the other hand, if a lot of these boxes are left unchecked you might want to try some of these suggestions for helping your kid become a more compassionate person.

Model it.   It appears as though compassion is not a Character trait kids are born with.  That means parenting is particularly important in raising compassionate kids.  The most important place to start is to be an example of compassion in both thought and deed.  How did you respond to the request for money from that person on the street?  What comment did you make behind their back (in the presence of your kid)?  What kind of charitable giving do you engage in (and does your kid know about it)?  How did you judge that person who screwed up (especially if it was your own kid)?  And, most important of all, what did you say about that idiot driver who just cut you off in traffic?  Your teens are watching.

Another source of modeling is in the stories you tell; about yourself, about other people and from literature, religious sources and cultural myths.  Find stories of compassion and make them a part of the tales you tell.

Notice it.  Point out examples of compassion that occur around you.  It comes in many forms.  Compassion can be seen in religious or spiritual figures like the Dalai Lama or Mother Theresa.  But, more relevant to our daily lives are the people who quietly, and without recognition, live compassionate lives.  Look for people who help others in need for little or no compensation.  This includes volunteers of all types; people who deliver meals on wheels, nuns and priests, Stephen minsters, unpaid tutors, retired business people who share expertise, community organizers, organizations that help specific disadvantaged people, teachers who stay late to help their students, volunteer firefighters.  Make a game of identifying instances of compassionate deeds you’ve witnessed.  The one with the most examples wins.

Teach it.  Compassion has to be taught so be prepared to provide direct instruction on how your teen needs to think and act to be a compassionate person.  One important component is being able to take another person’s perspective.  If your kid can’t see things through another’s eyes it is difficult for them to appreciate what that person is going through.  Help them learn to walk a mile in their shoes.  “It must be really hard to ride the city bus any time you have to go somewhere.”  “How would you feel if . . .”  “It must look really ­­­­______ from their side of things.”

Compassionate people also have an understanding of how bad things can happen to good people.  They know about the misfortune, troubles, difficulties and challenges others face.  Help your kid begin to appreciate that people can be caught up in circumstance, bad luck, random occurrences and a thoughtless moment that can set off a whole chain of negative events.  Not everyone learns and matures and grows morally at the same rate.  Understanding comes into play through the ability of your kid to think back on a time when they caused harm, messed up or were less than honorable.  It is important to help your kid be aware of how their own foibles and inadequacies affect others.  Were they worthy of compassion?  “I know it really hurts your feelings.  But, remember when you were really mad and ended up saying some things you regretted afterward?”

Another component of compassion is tolerance.  It is important to accept that others have different beliefs, life experiences and backgrounds that influence why they act as they do.  “No one has a corner on truth.”  “Just because they don’t agree with you doesn’t mean they are wrong.”  Help your kid see the importance of differences in others as a means of expanding their awareness and broadening their perspective.  It is a source of creativity, change and growth in addition to a necessity for compassion.

Compassion also requires the ability to generate benevolent interpretations of others actions and attitudes.  They can’t always see another’s perspective or understand why someone acts as they do.  Being compassionate includes considering possible explanations for someone’s behavior or situation in life that assumes they are trying to adapt or make the best of a bad situation.   “He must be in a real hurry to risk running us off the road and killing us all in a fiery car crash.  Bless his heart.”  Make a game of generating sincere, genuine explanations for others actions that otherwise would seem selfish, inconsiderate or wrong.  (Yes, again with the game strategy.  Making a game of things is a very effective way of addressing something without lecturing and making it playful so quit criticizing and show some COMPASSION for the writer.)

Finally, being compassionate does not mean you are blind to the fact that people should be held accountable for their actions.  It is important to help your kid find the balance between being compassionate while also holding themselves (and others) responsible for their actions.  It is not just a matter of excusing other’s misbehavior, mistakes or intentional violations of the rights and privileges of others.  For most of us, this is a particularly tricky balancing act to pull off.  It can seem so obvious that someone is to blame for being poor, lazy, dirty, crude, insulting, insensitive, unemployed, etc.  Compassion means considering potential (or actual) explanations for their actions other than because they just aren’t trying hard enough.

Come back next week for part 2 of Compassion


* This check list idea was inspired by Michele Borba’s wonderful book about raising younger kids with character titled Building Moral Intelligence.

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