Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Compassionate Parenting (Part One in a Two Part Series)

This week's guest blog is by author and activist for children and gentle parenting, Licia Rando. This post is Part One in a series on Compassionate Parenting. 

To parent with compassion is to feel what your child is feeling and to respond out of strength and well-being with a caring heart and mind.

One word bubbles to the top when trying to define the most important aspects of compassionate parenting-- listening. True listening involves our eyes, ears and our attention. Listening in compassionate parenting involves our hearts and minds as well. In order to parent compassionately we listen to ourselves as well as to our children. The information we receive allows us to respond with love and respect for both ourselves and our children.

Listening to our children involves more than hearing their words or cries, but also attuning to their body movements, facial expressions and emotions. If our infant turns away from us, squirms or pushes us, he is asking us to stop what we are doing. If our child is playing quietly with Legos, we should enter quietly and ask to join in or simply sit to the side and watch.  If our child is bouncing off the walls, we need to understand what her body is telling us and take her outside to run around before expecting her to sit for an extended time. 

Compassionate parenting understands a child’s development. I remember finding my 4-year-old daughter’s name written on our wall in a child’s beginning printing style. When asked who had done it, my daughter replied, “Raffi did it.” Raffi was our dog. Pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton tells us that all 4-year-olds lie.

If all four year olds lie, do we punish our child for normal developmental behavior? Or do we step into those little 4-year-old shoes and understand why the child lied. Child development tells us that the child at this age confuses fact and fantasy. Therefore our compassionate reaction would be to tell her that we understand why she said what she did and begin simple discussions on truth and fiction. All the while we guide her as she develops a conscience. As our child grows, we use reasoning to help her think about how her actions affect others. Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., professor of psychology, points to research that shows that “parents who use induction and reasoning raise children who are better adjusted and more likely to help their peers. This style of parenting seems to nurture the basic tools of compassion.”

Compassionate parenting means we must also have compassion for ourselves. Parenting is challenging at times and even those who truly love the job benefit from time away. A little break may help us to grow, to come back with a new outlook to share and perhaps with a new appreciation for the noisiness that is family. Compassion for ourselves means we don’t have to be perfect and we don’t have to give 100% of ourselves to everyone else. Compassion means we feel what the other person feels; we respond out of respect and love, but we do not allow ourselves to be drained of self. We come from a strong place of knowing ourselves first. We all have to have our needs taken into account to be part of a healthy family.

Daniel Siegel, psychiatrist and co-author of Parenting from the Inside Out, tells us that to be compassionate we must have theory of mind (an ability to perceive and understand the inner experience of another person), self-knowledge, and flexibility in our responses. Well developed executive functions help us to evaluate and override our initial emotional response to a situation. During a temper tantrum, telling ourselves,” I am getting angry because I am embarrassed, but tantrums are a normal part of child development” helps us to take an intentional approach, not an emotional approach to the situation. And when our child is finished with his emotional release, we can say compassionately, “I know it’s hard when we can’t have what we want. And someday you won’t need to take tantrums.”

Compassionate parenting, listening and putting ourselves in our child’s shoes does not mean, spoiling. Babies can not be spoiled. It is okay to love them and attend to their needs totally. Older children need limits. T. Berry Brazelton tells us that a spoiled child is a child looking for limits. A child needs to have limits set in order for him to navigate the world, form relationships with others and to become part of a family and the larger community.

Human beings are neurally wired to form relationships. Research by Eisenberger and Lieberman shows that feelings of rejection, exclusion, and distance activate the same neural processes as physical pain. In order to be healthy, we need to learn how to be with others. Research done at Emory University indicates that when we help people, it activates the reward centers in our brains. We can lead our child to discover that helping others feels good. In order to do this, we have to help our child see outside of his own self-interest and into the needs of other people. This is the beginning of connected relationships, the beginning of compassion.

The guide is endorsed by pediatricians T. Berry Brazelton, MD and Laura Jana, MD. Daniel Siegel, PhD, author of Mindsight and co-author of  Parenting from the Inside OutEisler, author of The Real Wealth of Nations.

The guide is available free on-line at www.liciarando.com
or www.saiv.net

  1. Lieberman, M. D., & Eisenberger, N. I. (2005). A pain by any other name (rejection, exclusion, ostracism), still hurts the same: The role of dorsal anterior cingulate in social and physical pain. In J. T. Cacioppo, P. Visser, & C. Pickett (Eds.), Social Neuroscience: People Thinking About People (pp. 167-187). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  2. T.Berry Brazelton, M.D., Touchpoints The Essential Reference
  3. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed., Parenting from the Inside Out 
  4. Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., The Compassionate Instinct, Spring 2004, http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/greatergood/archive/2004springsummer/keltner_spring04.pdf

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