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Raising a Compassionate Child

We humans are born compassionate. So why do 9 of 10 folks working to overcome addictions at the Recovery Café in my neighborhood report they were abused as children? I witnessed an extraordinary conversation about that recently. The Dalia Lama and early childhood development experts gathered at the University of Washington to discuss the scientific basis for compassion. The dialogue was groundwork for a five-day community exploration of the “Seeds of Compassion” in Seattle. One of the questions addressed in presentations and workshops around the city was how to raise a compassionate child.

Since we are born dependent, crying and messy, our survival, individually and as a species, requires some level of compassion, the Dalia Lama said. This innate compassion is biological – it’s in our genes. It is also limited and biased – it extends to “our own” and maybe to others like us, but not to those who are different and not to the enemy. True compassion is learned from experience. It is nurtured -- or not.

Infant mental health expert, Alicia Liberman, PhD, president of Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, spoke of a 3 year old boy in trouble at preschool. We will call him Paul. In what started as a typical tussle over a toy, Paul pitched a chair through a window. When the teacher approached he shouted, “Don’t touch me. I’ll kill you!” It turns out, a few days earlier Paul witnessed his parents fighting. He heard his father yell, “I’ll kill you” as he threw a telephone at Paul’s mother. He heard his mother shout, “Don’t touch me.” Paul learned from experience how to handle a dispute – with no compassion. His parents were shocked and distressed when Alicia visited them and they heard the story of Paul’s hard day at school. They believed Paul was too young to understand what he saw. They thought he learned only what they and his teachers intentionally taught him. Now they know. Paul, like all children, was not just “born to learn”; he was born learning. All the time. From everything. And most of all, he wants to be like his dad and mom.

And so Paul’s family learned together, with Alicia’s compassionate modeling, that the biological compassion we are born with can be unlearned through experiences like Paul’s. And conversely, true compassion is learned and can be nurtured through experience and modeling like Alicia extended to Paul’s parents, and like Paul’s parents now extend to each other and to him, and that Paul in turn now extends to his schoolmates.

True compassion is unbiased and unlimited; it extends to the enemy, the Dalia Lama, concluded; it comes from intelligence; particularly the wisdom that we are all connected. Science confirms true compassion is learned from experience. To raise a compassionate child, be compassionate with him and with yourself, with those like you, and with those who look like your enemy today. It’s not an easy lesson. It is a way of being.

Beginnings Guides model compassion. For example, age-appropriate discipline teaches compassion and good behavior instead of punishing bad behavior. At any age, effective discipline starts with “I love you and I do not like what you did.”
Excerpt from Beginnings Parent’s Guide—booklet #7

And when parent’s lose their self-discipline, as every parent does from time to time, Beginnings teaches self- compassion.

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