Expect it. It is important to let your kid know that you expect them to be compassionate in word and deed. When you notice a situation that calls for compassion, give your kid a nudge. Help them see how they could show compassion. When you can anticipate the need for compassion, let your kid know what you will be expecting in that situation. “Now, Terrence, when we get there it will be important for you to be considerate of all they have been through. So, cut them some slack.” Compassion is also, in part, about sacrifice. Compassionate thoughts are about setting aside your own perspective (or your frustrated or angry impulses) for that of the other person. Compassionate actions are about doing for others and thereby sacrificing time, comfort or luxuries. Expect your kid to make sacrifices for others in need or in pain. This is both through spontaneous actions as well as serving the community in some way through volunteering for the disadvantaged or needy.
Express it. Use the word compassion a lot. Be sympathetic toward others. A particularly effective, indirect way to express compassion is through hugging and making physical contact with the people around you. There is research that suggests that it is directly related to the presence of compassion. Be a family that hugs (and, yes, that means you and your son, Dads). Make (appropriate and gentle) physical contact with others upon greeting or during farewells. Shake hands. Gently place your hand on their forearm or just above the elbow upon greeting someone. (Be particularly cautious about hugging strangers. It can feel very intrusive for some, particularly by people who have suffered from some form of violence in their lives. If you are moved to hug someone you don’t know well, be sure to ask permission first.) In addition, quit being so judgmental and critical of others. Don’t be negative and pessimistic. Require everyone in the family to provide examples of the beauty and good in the world.
Encourage it. Encouraging your kid to be compassionate is not only about direct instruction (see Teach it above). It is also about weaving compassion into the fabric of the family. Make sure that your family is a place marked by warmth, responsiveness to others feelings, encouragement, understanding and support. Recognize when your kid demonstrate compassion and let them know how much it means to you.
Compassion is a part of the process of forgiveness when we have been wronged by another. Encourage your kid to work toward forgiveness when they are wronged rather than carrying bitterness and resentment in their hearts. (But, in the service of a balanced approach, make sure your kid doesn’t turn their emotional backs on them again until it’s clear that person has grown from the experience.)
How you discipline your kid will also encourage (or discourage) them to be more compassionate. Compassion is more prevalent in families where parents discipline their kids by requiring them to think through consequences and alternatives. This discipline approach emphasizes that other’s perspectives are important; both your kid’s perspective on why and how they ended up in trouble and viewing things from another perspective (the perspective of Mr. Spoon!). Parents who use harsh, punitive disciplinary practices to discourage rule breaking have kids who are less likely to be compassionate toward others.
A final way to encourage your kid to be compassionate is to help them practice self-compassion (a concept elaborate by Kristin Neff). Prompt them to apply the qualities of compassion to themselves when they make mistakes, don’t measure up or fall short of their own (or your) ethical expectations. You may need to help get them started by expression your compassion for them.
Anticipate it. Project moral behavior into their future self. “I really expect you to be a person who helps others who don’t have the blessings you do.” “People will really be able to benefit from your compassion when you are all grown up.” Envision how compassion will be a part of their adult lives.
Guilt it. Be disappointed when your kid doesn’t show compassion toward others. As always, use this approach sparingly and without making sweeping statements. That means saying things like “Is this really who you are? I’m kind of disappointed in your lack of compassion for them” rather than “You aren’t any better yourself. Who do you think you are?! You disgust me.”
Repeat it. You have to keep at this. Making compassion a moral habit in your kid will require lots and lots of practice.
Caveats. Compassion can sometimes be characterized as a sign of weakness or gullibility. Some people believe it sets you up to be hurt or taken advantage of. But, that is only true when compassion is combined with lack of assertiveness or difficulty in setting personal boundaries with other people. This is particularly likely to happen with kids who have a natural tendency to sacrifice their own needs for others. These wonderful kids will need your help learning how to strike that balance.
Interestingly, the kids who are most likely to SAY that compassion is a weakness are the kids who have a natural tendency to focus on their personal wants and needs with little consideration for others. You already know if you have one of these kids by the lack of check marks on the Character Checklist above. Dig in. This is just the kind of kid that needs the training in compassion discussed in these articles.
Next Week: Courage