In the previous article about compassion, I suggested that the quality of mind and heart is foundational for good parenting and for our spiritual well-being. Compassion is vital. Yet it is also completely unnatural for the natural man.
Compassion requires us to stretch beyond our self-focused thoughts and concerns. Ultimately it requires that we get the mind and heart of Christ. Only when we are changed by Him will we be fully and properly compassionate. But that doesn’t happen in one fell swoop.
God asks us to do the best we can to be compassionate while crying out for mercy. Godly compassion is the final gift to those who have struggled for it for a lifetime.
Two Homes for Compassion
The Lord taught that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 12:34). While heavenly compassion is substantially a quality of the heart, the mind is the gardener; our thoughts prepare the soil of our hearts for compassion. When our minds dwell on judgment and irritation, the soil remains hard, sterile, and impenetrable. When our minds understand the unique needs, challenges and life experiences of another person, we are better prepared to have compassionate hearts.
Perhaps that is why the Lord used obscure and strong language when He gave Joseph Smith timeless instructions for dealing with people: “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith . . . (D&C 121:45).
In scriptural terms, the word “bowels” suggest not just our hearts but all our innards, all our feelings, all our insides. He wants more than our hearts; God wants us to be packed and brimming with charity.
Then God adds the next condition: “and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly” (D&C 121:45). When we run into the word “virtue,” we moderns often think of sexual purity. It seems clear that God has in mind a broader meaning. I think God is inviting us to look for goodness. “Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure” (Titus 1:15). According to Paul, we see what we ARE! If our hearts are judgmental and angry, then our minds are cynical and negative. We see badness. If our hearts are pure, we see goodness in all those around us; we choose to dwell on their virtues, strengths and righteousness.
So God prescribes a formula of thoughts that are upright, holy, and generous combined with feelings that are charitable and compassionate.
You can see how important this is in parenting. Parents are constantly required to weigh in on children’s motives. When our minds are judgmental and our hearts are hard, our judgments will be filled with accusation and condemnation. We become like the great accuser, Satan, who is always looking for the bad and emphasizing it. This is very damaging for children. It leaves them feeling lost and lonely in a hostile world. As Haim Ginott observed, children need to be protected from adults with stone hearts.
In contrast to parents whose minds and hearts accuse their children, God invites us to be like the great advocate, Jesus, who looks for the good in us and whose heart is always welcoming. He knows that we will make many mistakes. He knows that we will often act foolishly (childishly!). And yet He is prepared to turn those failings into blessings of learning and growth. As God directed: “Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart” (Proverbs 3:3).
Four Kinds of Compassion
When we cultivate understanding in our minds, our hearts are prepared to feel compassion. I like to divide understanding into four kinds, each with a different combination of mind-work and heart-work.
- Understanding Development
We can help children more effectively if we understand their development. When we understand development, we are more open to a child’s challenges. For example, it is perfectly natural for a two year old to try to exercise some independence. The “terrible twos” are a vital developmental milestone. We certainly don’t want our children to remain completely dependent on us into adulthood.
In like manner, the churlishness of adolescence is another vital step toward establishing independence. The bold overstatements of teens are the sounds of a growing brain stretching and trying its muscles. When we adults overreact to teen’s bold statements, we prevent healthy growth. The right reaction involves understanding and compassion.
Jacob snorted a bold opinion at the dinner table, “This war is stupid! I can’t believe our leaders got us into it!” The rumbling in our souls when teens make such statements will tell us lots about our spiritual maturity. The natural parent—whether he agrees with the son’s opinion or not—is likely to say something like, “Who made you the expert on international relations? Since when do you know more than the finest minds in America?”
While such a response is entirely natural and seemingly fair, it is completely unhelpful. It creates a war at home and fails to acknowledge the blessing of a teen who is learning to have opinions and express them. We can respond in a way that estranges us or encourages better thinking.
Imagine saying something like: “Wow. You have strong opinions about the war. Would you tell me more about your thoughts? I’d like to know more about how you came to your conclusions.”
Some parents might worry that this way of responding tolerates and encourages brash statements in our children. Actually the opposite is true. Rather than responding to a brash statement with our own brash statement, this approach models mature thinking. It invites dialogue. It demonstrates the kind of open mind that can lead to productive thinking and collaborating.
There are seven developmental challenges that most commonly put parents of young children over the edge: colic, children’s sleep problems, separation anxiety, normal exploratory behavior, normal negativism, normal poor appetite, and toilet training. These are not calculated attempts by children to make their parents crazy. These are the normal, expectable challenges of a spirit learning to work with a mortal body.
We can react impatiently and harshly to problems. Or we can try to understand what challenges in the child’s world are creating the problem for the child. This requires us to get out of our own life stories and into theirs. This requires patience the many times that we cannot find a ready answer.
For example, colic is inconvenient. In fact intractable crying by babies is the most common cause of child abuse. It can make even a saintly parent perturbed. When an exhausted parent is combined with an inconsolable baby, there can be trouble—especially if we begin to think that we have a bad child or we’re poor parents. The solution to colic is to be sure that the child is healthy, not overfed, and gets lots of soothing. There is a reason that rocking chairs have been around for centuries. When nothing else works, sometimes a parent must put the baby down and allow him or her to cry.
The bottom line is that most of the silly things kids do in the course of growing up are perfectly normal. Most of them are markers for children’s developing maturity.
Even preferences in style may irritate parents and suggest a rejection of the family’s values. While it is appropriate to set limits on moral issues such as modesty, we are wise to enjoy their growing expression of self. In the process of parenting, we need to be very careful about the battles we pick. Better yet, we can try to see every step they take as progress towards God’s perfect purposes for them.
- Understanding Their Unique Temperaments and Personalities
Understanding development requires us to know what is common and normal for children. Understanding children’s uniqueness requires us to notice the ways in which a given child is different from most.
Each of our children has been different from the others from the first moment they arrived in our arms. Emily has always been a people person. Andy has always been creative and enterprising. Sara has always been tender and loyal. All three have wonderful qualities in common yet they are as distinct as three different species of trees.
We all recognize the challenge for us as parents. We cannot develop some tidy formula for raising our children. What works magically for one child annoys another and evokes open rebellion from a third.
God knows what He is doing. He wants us to love each child personally, individually, even sacrificially. We can spend a lifetime studying our children and their preferences. We can be genuinely open to their uniqueness. We can beg Heaven for needed guidance and inspiration. God aims to stretch us. Nowhere is this more evident than in the challenges of family life.
Brigham Young gave wise counsel to parents. Notice the highlighted part in the context of the rest. “Bring up your children in the love and fear of the Lord; study their dispositions and their temperaments, and deal with them accordingly, never allowing yourself to correct them in the heat of passion; teach them to love you rather than to fear you, and let it be your constant care that the children that God has so kindly given you are taught in their early youth the importance of the oracles of God, and the beauty of the principles of our holy religion, that when they grow to the years of man and womanhood they may always cherish a tender regard for them and never forsake the truth” (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 207).
Perhaps one of the best ways to teach our children about God is to be godly with them—to tune in to their needs and preferences and draw them toward God with our love. We cannot drive or compel them to heaven; they must be drawn with gentleness and kindness.
3. Understanding Their Circumstances
Do you remember some of the things you worried about when you were in elementary school? I remember worrying that I would forget to change out of my pajamas before going to school and would be humiliated to arrive at the classroom wearing my cowboy pj’s.
Each of us worried about different things. Some worried about being picked on by peers or being humiliated by a teacher. The point here is that most of us have long since forgotten what worried us as children. That may be good—except we may not realize that our children worry about many things.
A few years ago a group of scholars provided a list of 20 concerns to children in six countries and asked them to rate how stressful they would be to them. There was surprisingly high consistency between children in all countries. Children considered losing a parent to be the most stressful event among the 20. Given that divorce often wrenches parents from their children’s lives, this is worrisome. The next dozen stressors on the list were:
Being held back in school
Wetting their pants in class
Suspected of lying
A poor report card
Being sent to the principal’s office
Having an operation
Being ridiculed in class
Moving to a new school
The events that most worried children fell into two categories: experiences that threatened their sense of security and those that caused personal embarrassment. Of course there are many other things that also worry children; the worries in this list were provided by the researchers and may capture only a fraction of their real-life challenges. As parents we often don’t realize what things worry our children. And we may not realize how often we undermine their feeling of security and cause them embarrassment.
Years ago some caring and concerned parents asked for advice. Every once in a while their son would go crazy and become a terrorist. While Mom nursed the baby, this boy would scream and jump on the furniture. They wondered if something was wrong with their boy.
We talked for some time and had not found a convincing answer until I asked Mom the key question: Is there something different in your life when you have these problems with your son. Mom sighed. “Every once in a while the baby is sick and I spend the night caring for him and walking the floor. When morning comes, I am exhausted. I don’t play or laugh with my boy like usual.”
The light dawned for both of us. The terrorist son was not deliberately trying to make his parents crazy. Quite the opposite. Once in a while he got up and found that his normally-loving mother was a zombie. She didn’t talk, laugh, or play with him. She seemed to have disappeared from his life. She seemed mad at him. His terrorism was a plea for love and involvement. He was saying: “Mom, what’s wrong? Have I made you mad? Don’t you love me? Mom! Please come back! I need you! Mom! Please!”
When we see the world through our children’s eyes—when we notice their circumstances and struggles—we are far better prepared to respond to them helpfully. Paradoxically, we are often unaware of the ways our moods and well-being impact our children. Our distractedness, frustration, and exhaustion may frighten our children—even when they did not cause it in any way.
These three ways of understanding children are common among those of us who study child development. I want to add a fourth to the common list. It is important enough that I would like to dedicate a separate article to it. So we will continue our discussion of compassion in the next article.
If you are interested in additional ideas for effective parenting, you are invited to sign up for a new, free resource, we have created at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. Navigating Life’s Journey is a weekly e-mail series that offers helpful ideas on parenting based on research so you can trust they will work in real life. There are also two other series available on couples relationships and personal well-being. To sign up for any or all of these resources, go to www.arfamilies.org/family_life/life_journey
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful contributions to this article.
Yamamoto, K., Davis, O. r., Dylak, S., Whittaker, J., Marsh, C., & van der Westhuizen, P. C. (1996). Across six nations: Stressful events in the lives of children. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 26(3), 139-150.
YouTube videos on the Atonement