How to teach compassion in a me, me, me world
By Linda Stade
There was a moment for each of us in 2020 when we became profoundly aware of the experience of others in the world. For me, it was watching a video of people in a small Italian town singing in unison on their balconies. They were trying to connect with one another in the midst of a long lockdown. That day they had lost thousands of their countrymen and women and they were mourning alone together.
Then there was the news of a 13-year-old boy dying in a hospital in England. His parents and siblings weren’t able to sit with him in his final hours because he was quarantined. The idea of that poor child and the grief and trauma of his mum and dad and all his family broke something in me.
These were my lightning bolt moments. Your own will spring to mind quickly. There were so, so many to choose from.
In those moments we chose to stare into the pain and suffering of others. We felt empathy, and in many cases, people took action for others… no matter how big or small those actions may have been.
As a consequence of this global pandemic, we now have a generation of children who have continually seen adults respond with empathy and compassion. They have seen the work of front-line health care workers and first responders. They have seen people create joy in their neighbourhoods to lift the spirits of those around them. They have also seen profound generosity and care from philanthropists, celebrities, governments, and in many cases, their own families.
I may sound naïve, but perhaps all this role-modelling has created the opportunity for us to raise a more compassionate generation.
What is compassion?
Sympathy, empathy, and compassion are terms that tend to be used interchangeably. However, they are quite different.
Sympathy: I’m sorry you’re in pain
Empathy: I can feel what your pain is like
Compassion: You are suffering and I will do what I can to help
Sympathy and empathy are internal experiences. Compassion is action. Your compassion is seen in your actions and it is experienced by others. You help!
Compassion in Kids
In recent years we have chastised ourselves for raising an entitled generation of children. To some degree, we deserve that judgement. We have become more and more focused on the ‘self’ and we have modelled that attitude and behaviour. Now we have been given this opportunity for a reset, how do we continue to teach compassion to our children?
1. Show your children compassion by listening
The most effective way to teach children compassion is to show them compassion. This is never more powerful than when dealing with their emotions. Emotional experiences imprint deeply on children and thus stay with them for a long time.
Many parents feel their job is to make children happy, it isn’t. Our job is to help them understand their experiences and emotions and guide them gently. When we show them compassion in this way, we demonstrate to them that the way other people feel matters, and we can help. We promote empathy and compassion.
2. Coach them in taking action
Our young people are often accused of being very selfish. That is not the experience of Joanne Brasch-McPhee, who is the Assistant Principal – Students, at Lourdes Hill College. She says, “Young people enjoy working with others and they like to be shown how they can make a difference in the world. “
Joanne reminds us that, “Adolescents are often focused on themselves; they’re meant to be. That is where they are developmentally. However, they are also focused on their place in the world. If we leave them to social media, YouTube, and gaming they will believe their place depends on appearances, status, and winning. When we put in place programs and opportunities, and we give them wonderful role models, they want to act to help others.”
Service programs, like Vinnies or Rosies at Lourdes Hill College, are an invaluable way of teaching empathy and compassion. By serving people in need, kids learn the joy and satisfaction that comes from helping.
3. Teach them to step forward
Many people want to take compassionate action, but not everyone is brave enough to take that first step and put themselves forward. Children only know how and when to step forward when they see the significant adults in their lives do those things. This is tough for some personality types, whether you’re a child or an adult. However, we need to remember… we can be fearful and do it anyway. We can be shy and do it anyway. We need to role model what we want from our children.
4. Expose children to the world
By ensuring our children are meeting a wide variety of people from different walks of life, we help them develop their empathy and compassion. Too many children are isolated; surrounded only by others with the same values, experiences, and world views.
It is one of the most disappointing aspects of the virus, that we are unable to take children travelling overseas or interstate. It makes it harder to give them those experiences that show not everyone is the same as us and that’s a good thing! We can, however, read stories with them that illustrate differences. We can watch films and documentaries, and we can share our own experiences. There is also plenty of variety in our own communities, we just need to raise our kids’ awareness.
5. Teach them the truth about self-compassion
Self-compassion does not mean giving yourself a free pass on poor behaviour and being lazy. Self-compassion is creating a sense of psychological safety for yourself. It includes managing your boundaries, your self-talk, and freeing yourself from constant self-judgement.
During the height of lockdowns in Queensland, staff at Lourdes Hill College led students through an activity called, The 1000 Hearts Project. It makes compassion and self-compassion overt. Students were asked to reflect on the experience of elderly people and people living alone during that very isolating time.
The next step was to make two hearts. One to give to a person suffering in the pandemic, to let them know they were seen and hadn’t been forgotten. The second heart was to give to themselves. This heart reminded them to allow themselves self-compassion. Beautiful!
We are at a poignant moment in history. It is born of the very worst circumstances possible, however, it is a moment weighty with possibility. If we support our children and show them the way, we can create highly compassionate citizens. Compassionate citizens create a more aware, gentle, inclusive world. Surely, we can agree that would be a good thing.