When I was in counseling grad school, it was the fashion to see children as not yet ready for empathy and compassion, as if they had to get through their self-involved it’s-all-about-me years before they could develop an ear for others’ needs. That never seemed right to me – I’d always had a soft spot for people in trouble, and my friends did too. At church, we did little projects like gather groceries for people in need and collect money for holiday gifts for people we didn’t know. At school, we got to share our out-grown toys in a toy bank. I think we did have a dawning awareness that we had a hand in helping others.
I had some advantages in figuring out other people and what their lives were like. As the kid growing up with the smallest family possible, my mom and me, I carefully observed how my friends’ families worked – from the adopted girl down the hill who felt embarrassed by her loving but not especially cool parents, to the girl growing up without a scrap of time from either parent because there were so many kids to feed. I felt a little bad for each of them, though I might not have minded seeing what it was like to have a dad or a houseful of siblings myself.
As time went on, I understood how well I’d fared in the hands of a compassionate mother with a great deal of her daily attention on me. During the spell before our original TV conked out (leading to several years without one as my mom wasn’t big on gadgets), she didn’t hide her outrage at the treatment of civil rights marchers in Selma, and I caught it. It was brought closer to home when two of the murdered were members of our Unitarian religion, there in response to Dr. King’s plea for others to come to help. I still know their names: Dr. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo.
Mom’s compassion was contagious. How did she manage that?
A good person to ask is Bruce Perry, author of Born for Love, a collection of ideas on the power parents can have in helping our children become compassionate. He suggests becoming your children’s “emotion coach,” and directing their attention to acts of kindness, and pointing out the consequences of unkind behavior. One of my favorites is to watch TV shows and movies together and talk about the feelings of the various characters. He has plenty more.
Also, he favors families doing service projects together, and nurturing relationships with others from different circumstances and cultures. His emphasis on “practicing compassion” without preaching about it sounded just right to me.
If you are interested in more, visit Big Hearted Families, a website that offers a rich assortment of ideas about practicing compassion as a family and raising your children’s awareness of and caring about the needs of others.
This post is my contribution to a worldwide project called 1000 Voices for Compassion that asked 1000 bloggers to each write about compassion on the same day. I hope the waves of compassion will continue to spread around the globe. #1000speak.
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