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?
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