Thursday, October 17, 2013

Raising Compassionate Children

I tend not to hold back on my opinions about society. When bad things happen, when people treat others unkindly, when selfishness and paranoia are allowed to infiltrate our collective minds, when we stop caring about other people, no good can come of it. I've written about it many times before.

And yet, this is, sadly, the world we live in these days.

We live in a world where food stamps are cut but corporate subsidies aren't. Where the poorest of the poor are told to find another way, but CEOs make millions of dollars, and we don't blink an eye.

We live in a world where anyone with an internet connection can spend hours endlessly tormenting other people. Where fat-shaming and bullying and hatred and racism are spewed all over social media. We live in a world where websites exist for insecure teenage girls to post pictures and have people vote about whether they are hot or not. Where girls who have been victims of rape are tortured again online, where children are driven to suicide.

Infants are naturally selfish, purely as a survival mechanism. Toddlers fully believe that the world revolves around them, because it is all they can perceive. As children get older, they begin to understand that what they do and say has an affect on other people. They begin to sympathize. They begin to develop compassion. They begin to develop the ability to empathize.

Or at least, they are capable of it. They won't necessarily learn these things if they aren't taught to, if the elements of life which connect them to others are not encouraged and fostered. It is more difficult for some to learn, particularly if they have conditions which interfere with the development of empathy - and with those children, it's even more critical that we model, that we shape, that we teach. With all children, they need to be taught.  If they aren't taught, these abilities stagnate, they don't develop fully.

Then they hit adolescence, another typically self-centered time in life, and we shove a cell phone in their hands, give them unfettered access to the internet, and convince ourselves that we have done enough. We wonder what went wrong when that child is implicated in cyberbullying or destroying property or rape.

We live in a world where adults are just as bad, if not worse. They step on each other, they use people. The me me me me me nature of the world we occupy means that instant gratification is more important than integrity, that I am always more important than you, that the ends always justify the means.

Even if they don't.

Even if they never did.

We convince ourselves that what we do is okay, when we know it isn't.

The element missing in all of this is a simple one, and it is the most beautiful solution to so much of what ails the world today.

We need to learn compassion. We need to learn empathy. We need to remember how to care about other people again.

We need to relearn these lessons if we've forgotten them ourselves, and then we need to teach our children.

We need to look up from our phones long enough to make eye contact with other people, the ones we know and the ones we don't.

We need to see people, really see them. We need to sympathize. We need to remove ourselves from our place in life, even if just momentarily, to imagine what it would be like if we were them.

Sounds easy enough, right? It is not as easy as you would think to live with integrity and kindness in a world structured for the selfish. It takes discipline. It requires love.

So, how do we do it?

Here are some of my ideas, and they can apply to children and adults. If we all did some of these things, if we all learned to stop the rush to judgment and instead tried to understand, what a different place the world could be.

- Disconnect and re-engage. Remove all electronic devices, ban them if you must (that goes for the parents too). Eat meals together. Play board games. Hike. Go for walks. Do something, anything, that requires human interaction and isn't immediately tweeted to the rest of the world. Communicate to your spouse, to your children, that their time is important to you, that they are important to you, that it is all more important than whatever is going on in the online world. Your most important work in the world takes place at home. Never forget that.

- Volunteer. Donating money is great, but work is a better teacher for children. Time and effort given to someone else with no expectation of anything in return is essential to fostering compassion. We must understand that no matter how bad our situation may be right now, someone out there needs more help than we do, and that we can find a way to help them. There are so few opportunities in our society any more for actual, hard work, but it wouldn't take long to find someone around you who could use a few extra hands. Elderly neighbors may need yard work done. Nonprofits may need landscape work or painting assistance. After the flood here, there are miles and miles of trails that need to be rebuilt. The value of blood, sweat and tears cannot be taught with words alone, they must be experienced.

- Donate. We collect things in this country. We have an abundance of things. When you clean out those closets, when you decide to replace something worn or outgrown, put it in a box and take your children with you to donate it to a shelter, to an agency that can use it, to a non-profit donation center. Make them carry the box. Make them help. We do a food drive at least once a year for a local charity with our girl scouts. Physically have them collect the food, turn over the donation. They will understand more that it helps someone if they are a part of it. Take their old bikes to groups that collect and redistribute them at the holidays.

- Angel Trees. From the time my oldest was a baby, we have tried to make sure we do at least one angel tree donation a year. Allow the kids to choose the tag, take them shopping, have them wrap it, have them bring it back. Tell them what it is for, that there are children who may only receive this one item for the holidays, that they are fortunate, that they need to make sure they give to others.

- Pay it forward. When someone gives you the gift of kindness, pay it forward. Enthusiastically tell your children what someone did for you, then plan out ways that you can surprise someone else with a gesture of kindness. If you can make it an anonymous act of kindness, even better, because you will be teaching them true altruism - the notion of doing good with no expectation of thanks in return.

- Spend time with animals. For some children, animals bring out their innate compassion more than people do. For almost all children, the lessons to be learned from caring for an animal are vital moving forward in life, learning how to be responsible not just for themselves, but for another life.

- Spend time with people of all ages. If you aren't close in proximity to family, or you don't have a large family or circle of friends that spans many generations, find a way to get your kids around those who've seen the calendars change more. There is a wisdom and patience that can be passed on by our senior citizens more than anything we can teach them. Kids will learn compassion around both babies and the elderly for many of the same reasons: those with mobility issues need more time, that sometimes people need rest, that sometimes you can spend hours reading books and telling stories.

- Share and reach out. Not just with siblings, but with classmates. With friends. With the girl who always seems hungry at school but never has a snack. Encourage them to reach out to children who are new, who struggle with communication, who have special needs. Teach them that what sometimes appears as anger and hostility can just be that a child is frustrated and just wants a friend. Teach them to stand up for others. To speak out, not just for themselves, but for those who can't or won't.

- Teaching empathy to those with conditions that make it more difficult to develop it at all present a special challenge. Often, even with adults, the best way to teach compassion, to teach empathy is to pose a hypothetical question whenever a choice about treating other presents itself. Turn the situation on its heels and ask them how would you feel if ____________? Some children and adults simply can't conceptualize it any other way. They need to make it personal, they need to think about it in terms of how they would feel in that situation, so teach them to immediately ask themselves this question.

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