Sunday, September 14, 2008

Cultivating Compassion

We All Sing With the Same Voice on YouTube
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My husband and I live next to a playground and across from a middle school. This means that there are always lots of children around. If we keep the doors and windows closed the noise is minimal, but lately I have taken to keeping the front door open. I don't mind the energy and hubbub of the children and I really love the fresh air, but I am shocked by some of the things I hear the children say to each other. A few days ago, one of these utterances had me close to intervening and even possibly calling the police.

At 2:30, when the middle school students were released for the day, I was sitting in my living room drinking tea and trying to decipher some poetry (I am a student as well as a nanny) when I heard an adolescent male voice loudly emit the following:

"I just want you to know I have a 12 gauge in my basement and I know where you live!"

This brought me to my feet, but by the time I got to the door the street was empty.

In what universe is it o.k. for anyone, never mind a child, to say that to anyone? I am not naive, I am aware that there are people in this world who have committed heinous acts and I am aware that in anger and/or rage people are prone to say some nasty things to/threaten each other, but... my goodness gracious. And I won't even explore the gun issue/people having guns in their house/children knowing where guns are kept/children having access to guns. Instead I will ask the question,

How might we as parents, teachers, and caregivers cultivate compassion in children?

Not sure where to begin, I consulted Wikipedia. The 'compassion' entry in Wikipedia focuses on what compassion means and how it is illustrated in different religions. Religion. I had not thought of that. Today religion, in most cases, does not play a large part in our daily lives. Church attendance is dwindling. Many people attend religious services only on major holidays. Children complain about having to go to religious education classes, if their parents enroll them at all. Religion has a lot to teach about compassion. When I look back on my childhood, though compassion was applied in school, school was a place for broadening the mind, religious education was a place for broadening the heart. This gives me pause. Might it behoove us to make religion more a part of our lives and the lives of the children we know?

Do unto others as you would have done to you.
The Golden Rule. Something we can share with children without sitting them down for a lesson or directly talking about it with them. How?
Simplified example: Child 1 walks into classroom and is wearing glasses. Child 2 giggles, points, and calls Child 1 "foureyes." Other children laugh, too. Teacher says, "Children, I know Child 1 looks different today, but how would you feel if someone giggled, pointed, and called you names when you walked into the classroom? Maybe, instead, we should ask Child 1 to tell us about why he/she got glasses and what it was like to get them." and conversation continues.
In this way we can help children to train their brains to think in a compassionate way so that they begin to act compassionately.

Be more aware of our own behavior. Children are watching adults all the time for clues as to how to act. They absorb everything we do, every reaction we have, every word we say. Changing our behavior in the every day in even the smallest way can help children to learn compassion. Know the other day when you were driving down the street and that guy cut you off and you yelled and screamed and generally went bazerk? Your kids, yeah the ones in the back seat, they absorbed that. None of us are above frustration at times, but maybe next time you could say nothing at all or could say "Well, that man must be in a very big rush to disregard my feelings like that. I hope his day gets better." Hard to do in the moment, but definitely a display of compassion.

So, those are a few ways I think we might be able to begin to cultivate compassion in the lives of the children we know and love. I would love for you to share your ideas for cultivating compassion in children with me in the comments section.

When I ran to the door to see what was happening it was because my compassion for the potential victim kicked in. After, I could not stop thinking about the child who was doing the threatening and I felt compassion toward him. I wondered if anyone ever tried to cultivate compassion in him, what feeling inside him prompted him to say such an awful thing, why he was unable to find a healthy way to channel that emotion, what might be missing in his life. I wanted to find that boy, talk to him, and find a way to help him, help him to help himself. Talk about compassion. Though it is unlikely that I will ever have the opportunity to talk to that specific child, I do have the opportunity to cultivate compassion in myself, in the children I nanny, in my nieces and nephews, and in my yet unborn just-a-twinkle-in-my-eye children. So do you. Think about it.

If you are interested in other musings on compassion:

The Dalai Lama on The Meaning of Compassion in Every Day Life

In Character Magazine Spring 2008 issue on Compassion

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