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The following comes from Wallace Goddard’s new series, Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships. To see the previous article in the series, click here.
One day our little girl and her friend headed across the street to swing at the school playground. When they arrived at the road that separated our house from the playground, our daughter stopped to look for cars. Her friend did not. She ran into the street and was hit by a passing car.
Fortunately the car was traveling slowly. But it hit the girl with enough force that she flew some distance and skidded on the road to a painful stop.
We responded immediately. We made her comfortable, put a cool cloth on her scrapes, called for medical help, and offered words of comfort and reassurance. The healing process was already underway.
Often our kids are hit by life. But our responses are commonly less healing than those we offer for physical injuries.
For example, when our boy comes home from school angry and upset, how do we respond? The natural parents say things like:
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Have you gotten yourself in trouble again?”
“Have you been stupid today?”
There must be a quirk in human wiring that we respond to physical distress with strong and automatic compassion. Yet we respond to emotional distress with investigation and veiled accusation.
We certainly would not say those things to a little girl lying injured in the road. We would never think to put traffic cones around her and pronounce: “We’re going to give you some time to think about what you did and why you’re suffering.”
Can we learn to show compassion to children hurt by life? In the case of the boy who came home from school tense and upset, we might compassionately observe: “It looks like you’ve had a bad day.” Then we can wait lovingly for the child to share. As he shares, we might listen carefully for his descriptions of the pain. Maybe he says: “Everyone was goofing around in class today but the teacher yelled at me.”
The natural parent is tempted to accuse: “You must have been doing something to make the teacher yell at you.” Probably he was doing something he shouldn’t be doing. And the child hit by the car certainly made choices that got her hurt. But when people are hurting, our job is be healers, not preachers.
We could think about how that felt for the child. “That must have been humiliating. And it didn’t seem fair.”
“Yeah! Why did she blame it on me?”
“I’m sorry, Son.”
“I’m never going to school again!”
“I can see why you want to avoid that experience.”
As long as the child is in pain, we offer healing words. The time will come in such conversations when the child’s will sags. Most of the pain is gone. A parent may be tempted to launch the moral lesson at this point.
That would be a mistake. In most cases, the most practical and wisest counsel will come from the child. The parent can simply ask: “What can you do to be sure you never have that terrible experience again?”
Your son knows what he needs to do. “I don’t need to sit by Liam. He starts things and I get in trouble for them.”
Or maybe your son will say: “I need to notice when the teacher wants us to settle down.”
We can support his idea. “That sounds like a good plan.”
By the way, our daughter’s friend recovered fully from her injuries. Some compassion and a little first aid had her feeling better soon. Often the same thing can happen with emotional injuries. Next time one of your children is hurting, see it as an opportunity to show compassion, and to apply emotional first aid.
For more about showing compassion, see Haim Ginott’s brilliant Between Parent and Child. For a step-by-step process for helping children deal with painful experiences, see John Gottman’s Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.
For more ideas about parenting and compassion, read my Bringing Up Our Children in Light and Truth.