We are all born with innate compassion. But this biological compassion is limited and biased; it is limited to our immediate family or to those like us; it does not extend to those we see as different, or to the enemy. This is a natural protective mechanism necessary to survival. In contrast, true compassion is unlimited; it extends to all, including the enemy. Science now confirms the wisdom of the ancient spiritual teaching “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Neuroscience and brain imaging show that true compassion is learned through experience from our earliest days. A child learns true compassion—or unlearns innate compassion—by watching her parents deal with everyday conflict and tension, especially the tension she creates as the new addition to the house and to their relationship. So the seeds of compassion grow or dry up in the parent/child relationship, beginning at birth, if not sooner. True compassion is learned, it is based in intelligence and knowledge.True compassion is taught during everyday discipline. Indeed discipline means to teach.
Essential knowledge for parents who want to raise a compassionate child:
♦ Every child is born learning. Babies do not wait for someone to start teaching them. They do not selectively listen for the words we want them to hear. They cannot differentiate our highest deeds from our low moments. They are never too young to see what is going on.
♦ Every child wants to be like dad and mom. They do what their parents do and say what their parents say.
♦ A baby does not understand No!
In Book 2 of the Beginnings Parents Guide (4 to 7 Months), we see Baby preparing to chew on an electrical cord. If his mom shouts, “No. No! I said, NO!” Baby will likely stop, look at her and smile, and then bite into the cord. He does not know what No means and he cannot think what else to do. He learns from the experience, but probably not what his Mom wants him to learn. Without understanding the words, Baby learns that when he chews on the cord Mom gets very excited and he gets lots of attention. His budding reason motivates him to do it again. As the scene is repeated, by about 18 months of age Baby learns that when he does not like something, he should shout No! No! NO!
Age appropriate discipline is compassionate; and so it nurtures compassion by modeling. At any age, effective, compassionate discipline starts with I love you; and I do not like what you just did. It makes the action wrong without making the child “bad”.
In our example of the electrical cord chewing Baby, his compassionate parent can teach him compassion and keep him safe by gently redirecting his attention. Mom moves him away from trouble and shows him something better to do. She says something like: “I love you and that is not to eat. Yuk! Spit it out”. She may also recognize that Baby is teething and teething requires him to chew. When she gives Baby a teething ring or a cold wash cloth to ease the pain, he learns an ethic of caring. When she rearranges the furniture to make the cords inaccessible to Baby, she reduces the need for discipline, demonstrating compassion for herself and for Baby.
American Academy of Pediatrics (1998, April) Guidance for Effective Discipline. PEDIATRICS 101( 4); 723-728 . http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/pediatrics;101/4/723
Seeds of Compassion. www.seedsofcompassion.org
National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2000) From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Child Development. Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Child Development. Jack P. Shonkoof and Deboah A. Phillips, eds. Board on Children, Youth and Families, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.