Photograph by Michaela Proctor Photography.
In previous articles we have discussed the foundational role of compassion in parenting as well as three kinds of understanding that facilitate helpful compassion:
1. Understanding development: recognizing that many of the irritating things children do are an important and normal part of their development
2. Understanding their unique temperaments or personalities: recognizing that each child has a unique way of navigating life—and, with compassion, we learn to accept and value his or her way
3. Understanding their circumstances: being tuned into the stresses and demands in their lives so that we can be compassionate and supportive
You may already see an important theme developing: Children do what they do for reasons that make sense to them. Children do not cry in the night because they love to make us suffer. They do not fight with their siblings because they are hateful people. In every case they do what they do in order to survive. Their actions may not be the best approach, but they are motivated by some perceived need in the child.
There is an important corollary to this observation: When we think that their behavior is crazy or irrational, we do not understand them. Our indignation at their irrationality is a sign that we need to stretch our compassion.
Notice how beautifully this truth fits with God’s ways. Our feeling of irritation is always a call for us to be more humble and compassionate. It invites us to be open to one of God’s still-developing children. This is a test of our readiness to do what God does: offer compassion to strugglers and learners.
So, for me, the fourth kind of understanding that draws holy compassion is understanding humanness or fallenness. We all share that desperate fallenness. We all need compassion for each other.
Have you ever felt lost, hurt, and desperate? Have you cried out in the dark for compassion? Have you yearned for someone to pick up your battered and injured soul along the road of life, bind up your wounds, and carry you to healing?
I have. And I have been amazed at the compassion that Jesus offers me. My stupidity has cost Him dearly—yet He comes to my broken soul offering His tears and blood to heal my mind and heart.
That is what He asks us to do as we deal with our children who are human and fallen—and childish. This is the foundational task of parenting. It is also foundational for discipleship. When we are baptized, we covenant “to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). Is there any place we can do this that is more important than in our relationships with our children? Is there any better way “to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in,” than to show compassion to God’s children whom He has entrusted to our care?
Providing Emotional First Aid
When our daughter Emily was in kindergarten, she and a neighbor friend named Donna often skipped their way across the street to the school playground to kick a ball and ride the swings. One day as the two girls left our house and headed to the playground, Emily stopped at the curb and Donna dashed into the street. A slow-moving car was unable to stop and hit Donna, sending her skidding and sprawling painfully on the pavement. She lay in the street frightened and injured.
What is the right parental response to Donna’s situation? Would it make sense to approach her and remind her of our oft-repeated and wise counsel to look both ways before crossing the street? Would it make sense to tell her that maybe she needed a timeout to reflect on her carelessness? Would we ground her or demand that she apologize to the frightened driver?
Of course not. We naturally consider such behavior abusive. We would run to Donna and offer words of love and assurance even as we helped her get comfortable. We would call for appropriate medical care and provide first aid. We would stay by her side doing anything we could to help her feel safe and to start the healing process. (Fortunately, Donna fully recovered.)
Far more often than we realize, our children are injured by painful encounters with life. They come home bruised, skinned, and bleeding from hurtful run-ins with mortality. We adults almost surely do not realize how often they feel frightened and wounded. If we try to understand their pains and challenges, we are likely to look upon them with compassion rather than judgment and impatience. God calls us to offer emotional first aid. That is compassion’s mandate.
Haim Ginott, the great teacher of parental compassion, tells a story of a child’s disappointment—and a mother who didn’t know how to show compassion:
Grace, age twelve, was tense and tearful. Her favorite cousin was going home after staying with her during the summer.
GRACE (With tears in her eyes): Emma is going away. I’ll be all alone again.
MOTHER: You’ll find another friend.
GRACE: I’ll be so lonely.
MOTHER: You’ll be fine.
GRACE: Oh, mom! (Sobs.)
MOTHER: You can be such a drama queen!
Grace gave mother a deadly look and escaped to her room, closing the door behind her.
This episode should have had a happier ending. A child’s feeling must be taken seriously, even though the situation itself is not very serious. In mother’s eyes this separation may be too minor a crisis for tears, but her response need not have lacked sympathy. Mother might have said to herself, “Grace feels miserable. I can help her best by showing that I understand what pains her.” To her daughter she might have said any or all of the following:
“It will be lonely without Emma.”
“You miss her already.”
“It is hard to be apart when you are so used to being together.”
“The house must seem kind of empty to you without Emma around.” [end of Ginott quote]
Do you sense the power of a parent offering genuine compassion to a child? Compassion offers children the healing balm of feeling understood. It also reassures children that their feelings are not abnormal and that the important adults in their lives care about their feelings.
The Fruits of Compassion
It is common for us to assume that showing compassion may increase or extend the child’s pain. Experience, research, and God say otherwise. When we show heartfelt compassion for someone else’s pain, we not only show that others can understand their pain but also that we are touched by the feeling of their infirmity (See Hebrews 4:15). Jesus went beyond paying our sins and bore our infirmities so that His compassion would be fully informed (Alma 7:11-12).
God Himself sets the perfect example. In the stunning revelation in which Enoch and God jointly observed the suffering of God’s wicked children on earth, Enoch was shocked to discover God weeping. He asked how someone as great as He could possibly be touched so deeply—especially by the wicked children. God replied: “the whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmanship of mine hands; wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?”
Amazing. God does not sit in a distant heaven untouched by our struggles.
He weeps with us and for us. He asks us to show similar compassion for our children when they suffer.
Teaching With Compassion in Times of Trouble
A woman went shopping with her sister and her sister’s two children. The two women and two children had been running errands for hours. The children were tired and bored. They began to quarrel. The mother, who was rushing to finish her errands, was frustrated by the demands of the day, the quarreling between the children, and the difficulties in finding a parking space on a crowded street.
Then the girl threw a toy at her brother. It missed him and flew into the front seat, startling the mother. As she pulled the car into a parking spot, she yelled angrily at the children, “You two need to stop this right now! If that toy had hit me I could have crashed this car. I am very angry at both of you!” Then she got out of the car to finish her last errand, slamming the door on her way out.
There was complete silence for a few minutes. Then the little girl said in a small, quivering, tear-filled voice, “I don’t like it when doors slam.” The sister—still in the car with the children–said her heart broke when she realized the little girl felt as if her mother no longer loved her and her world was no longer safe.
While we readily understand the mom’s frustration, we have to ask if her response to the flying toy taught her daughter a better course of action. This good woman wants to be a wonderful mother, but she left her children feeling frightened and shamed.
It is not acceptable for children to throw things at family members, especially in a moving car. But let’s imagine how mom might have used compassion to handle this situation more effectively. She might have realized that, after a long day of running errands and being strapped in the car, the children were tired, bored, and cranky. She could have recognized that she was feeling irritated and impatient and was in need of a chance to collect herself before reacting. She might have taken a deep breath and invited the children to hold on through the last errand. Or she might have gotten the children out for some lunch and a walk.
Later, at home, Mom might have sat her daughter in her lap. When they were peaceful, Mom might have offered understanding and helped her daughter learn new ways. “Today was a hard day,” she might begin. “You were upset when you were in the car.” When the girl felt safe and understood, Mom might probe: “Did throwing the toy at your brother help you get what you wanted?” Mom could listen some more. “Is there anything you could have done differently?” Then Mom could coach her daughter to better ways of behavior.
Compassion sets the stage for effective teaching and parenting. Effective compassion requires us to get out of our own story and step into the stories of our children. Let’s consider a couple of common examples.
Imagine that your teenager is working on his algebra homework and groans, “This is so hard! I just don’t get it.” The instinctive adult response is to say, “It’s not hard. You can do it.” Now consider the inevitable metamessage we sent to the child: “You think this is hard. It really isn’t. Everyone else in the world can do algebra. If you can’t do it, you must be stupid.”
This harsh message is certainly not our intent. But, because we spoke from our point of view (“Yikes! I don’t want my child to give up. I must push him forward.”) rather than the child’s point of view (“I’m lost. I don’t know what to do.”), we discouraged rather than encouraged our child.
Consider a different response, one tuned to the child’s feelings and experience. “I can see why algebra feels so hard. You are learning a new language filled with symbols and a lot of rules for solving problems. I appreciate how hard you are working to learn that new language.” The emphasis on this response is appreciation for the difficulty of the task and appreciation for the child’s efforts.
Consider another situation. A child spills a glass of milk. Of course the child feels embarrassed, flustered, and worried. What’s our reaction? Here are some different responses—some helpful and some not.
Common parental response—doesn’t show much compassion:
More understanding and compassionate parental response:
Attacking versus solving:
“You are so clumsy.”
“The milk spilled. Here is a cloth to wipe it up.”
Advising versus understanding:
“What you need to do is pay more attention.”
“We all spill sometimes.”
History versus here and now:
“You always spill something.”
“It is good that we have paper towels.”
Labeling versus understanding:
“You are such a klutz!”
“Big glasses can be hard to handle.”
Futurizing versus understanding:
“You’ll never be able to do anything right.”
“It’s embarrassing to spill milk, isn’t it.”
When something bad happens, we tend to be irritated because of the inconvenience it entails on us. We hate messes and wasted time. So we lecture already-embarrassed children rather than binding up their wounds with compassion and teaching them better ways.
We love our children. If another adult were to say insensitive, demeaning or hurtful things to them, we would do whatever we could to stop that person from continuing to have that kind of influence in their lives. Yet, sometimes, without realizing it, we allow ourselves to be that kind of voice in our children’s lives. The natural parent is an enemy to children—unless our hearts have been softened by the goodness of God.
Listening to a Child’s Heart
Compassion is useful not only when children feel hurt by life but also when they are disappointed, thwarted, or frustrated. Imagine a parent who takes his child to the store. The child sees a toy he wants. He asks for it, then begs for it and finally begins whining to have it. This behavior could tempt any parent to irritation. “You have all kinds of toys at home! And most of them are scattered all over the house because you never pick them up! I’m not buying you anything else. I don’t want to hear any more whining!”
This response is not helpful. Instead, the parent can listen to the child’s heart. “That does look like a great toy. I can see why you like it! We aren’t taking anything home today. Maybe you will want to choose this one the next time we are getting a new toy.” The limit can be delivered with loving empathy. And it can be repeated as many times as are needed to convince the child that we are serious. The parent can show that she takes the child’s preference seriously by saying, “Let’s write down the name of that toy. You can keep the note so that you will remember which toy you wanted.”
As we assist our children in making the journey towards becoming adults, limits must be set. Responsible behavior must be taught.
But we can do it with a spirit of compassion.
The ability to show compassion effectively takes the character to set aside our own frustrations and irritations. It is the desire to understand and have empathy for our child. This is not learned in a mini-class. This is one of the hardest things that humans ever do. It is the work of a lifetime.
Here are two recommendations as you begin the journey of compassion.
1. Think of a recent experience when you found it hard to show compassion for your child. Rewrite that scenario in your mind. How might you have offered emotional first aid? How might you have reacted differently during a time of trouble? How might you have listened to your child’s heart? Prepare your mind and heart to show more compassion towards your child/children this week.
2. I recommend that every parent read and re-read one of the great books that teaches compassion. My personal favorites are Between Parent and Child by Haim Ginott, Soft-Spoken Parenting by H. Wallace Goddard, and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman.
Compassion does not come easily or naturally to humans. Yet it undergirds and supports all parenting. Its vital role will become even clearer in the articles ahead.
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.