In my practice, many parents come to see me because they are extremely frustrated with their child who is unable to learn how to be compassionate toward or considerate of others. They model, they give positive reinforcement, they use reward charts, and they praise. And often they are pulling their hair out wondering how one of their children is so naturally caring towards others, while the other is not.
These parents are coming to see me because they feel on some level they are failing their child. They feel they cannot get through to their child. And they come to me seeking strategies to help them help their child but also reassurance that they are not terrible parents.
As parents, we often blame ourselves when we feel our children have not learned basic skills that society deems appropriate by a certain age. We worry what will happen to our children if these skills do not get learned, and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to help them.
So when it comes to compassion and consideration of others, is it possible to teach our children this skill?
For a child to develop compassion, it is ideal if all adults in their lives are working together. The reality of this happening is close to impossible. So it is mostly up to parents to create an environment within the home that helps instill as much opportunity to learn compassion as possible.
To help create this environment, parents can provide their children with exposure to certain scenarios and skills:
1) Immerse them in the feeling. Give their children opportunities to practice being compassionate by being directly exposed to scenarios where compassion is warranted. Talking or guilting your child into doing it cannot teach compassion. Children can learn to be empathic by asking them to put themselves into someone else’s shoes. Ask them how they would feel in the same situation. Ask them how they would feel if someone helped them out of a difficult situation. Immerse them in the feeling. If they saw a friend crying at school, would it not be nice to go and see if their friend is ok…but more important, wouldn’t they want someone to check on them if they were the one crying? Children can learn very well with this visual. This type of behavior will reinforce their compassionate behavior and would reinforce the internal reward of feeling appreciated.
2) Coping with anger. Children need to learn how to recognize when they are angry and learn to cope with it. If a child is angry, this often overrules any other feelings and sentiments in their minds at the time. For instance it is hard to be compassionate toward someone when one is feeling angry and overcome with negative emotions. So we must help children recognize how they are feeling and help them address it before we should expect them to learn compassion toward others. Parents also ought not expect their children to be compassionate when they are angry. This will just set their children up to fail.
3) Regulate emotion. Parents must help teach their children regulate their own emotions. Learning not to be impulsive helps our children be in control. We must praise our children when they regulate their behavior, as this is a very difficult skill to learn and many children and adults have difficulty with it. Learning this skill can help instill a compassionate attitude in our children by empowering them.
The question remains however – whether compassion can be learned or whether it is something we are just born with. How can we explain the difference in values and behaviors of children born into the same family and brought up by the same parents? Is it possible that compassion and the ability to be considerate toward others is innate?
This is a very difficult question to answer. And the truth is…. I have no idea what the answer is. Research in this area is very mixed. Some studies put way more emphasis on the nurture debate…namely that children can be taught just about anything with proper exposure and appropriate modeling for them. Other studies look at the nature factor. Either you are born with it, or you’re not. Families with children who differ significantly in their ability to show compassion are represented in these studies.
So what do you think? Is there a way for parents to teach compassion to their children? Or is it something we are either born with or without?
As parents of multiple children, we are faced daily with the conflicts of our children’s schedules, activities, struggles and the need for discipline. When it comes to discipline in particular, what works for one child does not necessarily work for the other. What is fair and appropriate discipline for one is not necessarily so for the other. So, how do we handle the constant questioning from our children, “Why did I get punished when my sister did not? How come I have to clear the dishes from the table and all my sister needs to do is throw out the garbage? Why am I not allowed to watch any more TV but my sister is allowed one more show?”
My husband and I constantly feel we are dodging these questions, while at the same time juggling all of our balls in the air. At all times. And dropping any of them is never an option. Respite comes only with the sweet sound of silence when bedtime is complete and we can breathe a sigh of relief. When it comes to explaining discipline and the reason why punishments appear different or unequal to our children, we are faced with a dilemma. They all have different levels of understanding. And although we do not always have an answer that makes sense to a little person, we feel that in order for the message to be received, we need to at least try to explain the lesson to them in as simple terms as possible.
But how far should parents go in order to teach a lesson? Is there such thing as too far? There is no clear-cut answer.
A client recently brought to my attention an issue that she and her husband are currently struggling with in their home. An issue that is all too familiar to my family and to most of our friends at some point or another.
She is having tremendous difficulty getting one of her sons to comply with basic house rules. Listening to instructions is a task that he wishes to ignore. And we are not talking anything major, we are talking about getting dressed, making his bed, and brushing his teeth in a timely manner without needing to have the instruction repeated a dozen times.
Just to clarify….There is no hearing problem. That has been ruled out. There is no attention deficit disorder…that too has been ruled out. This family is currently dealing with a child who has outwardly admitted that he just does not want to do what is asked of him. He does not care to listen to instruction or direction. He takes the punishment, and then will cry for another chance or blame one of his siblings for distracting him from staying on task. But he does not appear to be learning from his consequences. Or maybe they are not severe enough. It’s difficult to say which is true.
As our children get older, obviously barring any obvious cognitive delay, it is unfair for parents to have continue to baby them. It does not do well for us or for our children in the long term. The family has decided that if their son cannot get up and ready for school on time, he will be late. He will have to walk in to class late, and explain himself. Something that he hates to do as it embarrasses him terribly. Something they wish they did not have to do either as too many late slips do not look good on a permanent school record. But they feel they are out of options.
So are these parents taking it too far? Is this too harsh? What are they supposed to do? Without literally standing over him every morning and instructing him to brush his teeth, comb his hair, get out his clothes …because if they leave he will pick up a book and start reading… does the punishment fit the crime?
These parents are concerned that this lesson might backfire and turn him off school altogether. But I guess this is a chance they are prepared to take as the level of frustration and stress in the house is almost too much for them. And the need to stand over him is virtually impossible with all their other responsibilities i.e. work, house, two other children, making dinner, chores, etc which also take up their time.
We all know what is best for our children. And we all make mistakes along the way. These parents are willing to implement some tough love with their child, in the hopes that the message will be received. Trusting him with a task and allowing him plenty of opportunity to follow through has clearly not been much of a motivator.
As such, discipline that is effective for one might not work for others, even within the same household. So when asked by our child why their sister gets treated this way, and them the other….the answer becomes more clear over time and as they mature. Mom and dad do their best to treat all their children in ways, which they feel, will work best. They are not always equal. They are not always the same. And they might not always appear fair. But the ultimate goal that we all have for our children is the same; to teach them to be responsible, respectable, and self-sufficient members of society. As parents, we all secretly pray that eventually our kids will get it, and not resent us for it in the long term.
Over the last week or so, there has been some debate on my neighborhood community Facebook page about whether it is appropriate to lie about your address to get your child into the local public school. The local public school is kind of a legend in its own time. It has a fabulous reputation and over the years its students have managed to score higher than provincial average on outcome scores. Aside from the main stream, it also has a special needs and gifted program, which are both highly regarded by administrators across the province.
The debate, becoming heated, is centered on families who have lied about their address in order to fall into the catchment area of the school when they do not in fact live in the area. They argue that it is the best school in the area, better than their own home school, and they would do whatever it takes to ensure their children get educated there. The other side is arguing that it takes away from the community of the school, it is overfilling the classrooms which are already too full, and is sending our children a message that it is alright to lie in order to get what you want. Clearly, I am merely summarizing the argument, which goes way deeper than the scope of this blog.
So is it alright to lie to administrators, and have our children learn this message directly from their own parents in order to accomplish a certain goal? Is it ever okay to deliberately lie? If so, how can we expect our children to be able to differentiate between good and bad lies? Does such a thing really exist?
The school board very clearly defines the school catchment area. So if others from outside the community lie about their area of residence in order to get into the school, do local parents have a right to fight this? After all, the school is already over capacity. Those who live in the catchment area pay higher taxes to live in the area. Many families have even moved into the area specifically because of the school. Is it okay for others just ‘to join’ in without paying their dues, so to speak?
The truth is, I have no answer to this question. I have chosen to stay out of this online debate, as I have friends on both sides, and I can see both sides. Currently, despite the fact that I too live in this ‘catchment area’, my own children are in private school and this whole argument does not affect our family. However, if we chose to send our children to our local public school, I too would be highly concerned about class sizes and the lack of personal attention my children would receive if the classroom sizes were not adequately capped.
On the other hand, if I did not live in the neighborhood, and wanted my children to attend this school, would I do everything possible to ensure my children could attend the best school around? I probably would do that too. And I would most likely get the backlash that these families are getting now.
There is obviously a growing tension between both sides, and this is unlikely to resolve itself any time soon. In an ideal world, both sides would be better off using their resources if they put all the time and energy they are using now to spew commentary on Facebook and focus it instead on what is really important – realizing that we all have the same goal in mind, regardless of the boundary that defines our neighborhood. We all want what is best for our children, and we need to figure out a way to work together without lashing out or throwing insults back and forth.
The unanswered question remains however – what messages are we sending our children if we do lie? Are these the messages that we wish to send our children? And ultimately, is the message as important as the outcome when it comes to our children’s future?
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