Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cultivating Compassion in Children

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

We all want a more compassionate world, but how do we help to make it that way? Guiding the next generation in compassion ensures a better future for us all. Here are some ways to begin cultivating compassion in the children under your care.

Be loving and compassionate with your children. 

Darcia Narvaez, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, studies empathy and moral development.  She tells us that children need to be held and to have their needs met to develop the neural responses necessary to feel for others. “Part of what is being shaped by caregiver touch and responsivity is the neuroendocrine system, which plays a large role in managing stressful situations and bonding to others throughout life.”
Bruce Perry, child trauma expert and psychiatrist tells us, “Babies are born with two important skills that prepare them for empathy --the ability to imitate facial gestures and the automatic response in which the cries of other infants cause them to cry as well.” Both of these actions involve mirror neurons.  These cells fire when we perform an activity and they fire when we see someone else perform an activity, but less intensely. Someone else’s smile or tears triggers a response in our brains.  This response enables us to feel another’s pain or joy.

Help your child learn to read emotions on faces.

Make happy, sad and mad faces at your baby and name them for her.  Show her picture books that focus on simple feelings. At 1-2 years, when your baby is frowning say, “You look sad”. This helps her to know her inner world which is necessary to feeling what someone else feels. As your child reaches 2-3 years, ask her to make faces for the emotions you name, extend the feelings to include surprised, excited, hurt, and scared. While reading together, look at the illustrations and identify the feelings of the characters.  As the stories get more complex, ask what the character feels and why she or he might feel that way. Also ask if your child remembers feeling this way. Extend this to your day to day living. When you see a child at the park get hit, ask your child what he thinks that child is feeling.  Ask what you might do to make the child feel better.

Help your child act compassionately.

Your compassionate acts will have the most influence on your child learning to act with compassion. Also help your child to perform his own compassionate acts. Ask him to draw a picture or give a gift of something he knows someone else would like and give it.
Keep in mind that children under 18 months are unable to determine a different desire than their own. A study by Repacholi and Gotnick gave children bowls containing either broccoli or goldfish.  The children preferred the goldfish. Researchers made faces expressing disgust with goldfish and a like of broccoli.  When the researchers asked for more of the food they liked, the children instead gave them the food they themselves enjoyed (broccoli or goldfish) until the children were 18 months of age. Children not only need to identify feelings to develop compassion, they need to see that others may have different viewpoints than they themselves have. 

Help your children be mindful of good acts at every age. 

In my grade 2-3 religious education class, children recorded their good acts in a small notebook. Then in class each child placed a gem in a jar for each good act they performed and each act they witnessed someone else perform. Giving gems for seeing someone else perform a good act serves as a model for the child, someone to imitate. When the jar was full of jewels, we had a party to celebrate. This was one of their favorite activities.  I also told them to observe the receiver of the kind act’s facial and bodily response, to see how their kind acts affect others. This would serve as an immediate reward.

Encourage schools, clubs and places of worship to provide opportunities.

Help make dinner at a shelter, collect canned goods, clothes, baby items, etc. Older children will find projects more meaningful if they have input into which organizations to help. Our older Girl Scouts voted to help the animal rescue league and to collect books for flooded libraries.
When we parent to cultivate compassion in our children, we produce beings who are able to feel what others feel and to act on their behalf. If all over the world parents united in this cause, we could assure a more compassionate world - a legacy for all our children.

Licia Rando is the author of the picture book The Warmest Place of All and Caring and Connected Parenting: A Guide to Raising Connected Children.
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.   D. P. F. Montague  & Walker-Andrews, A. S. Mothers, Fathers, and Infants: The Role of Familiarity and Parental Involvement in Infants’ Perception of Emotion Expressions. Child Development, 73, No. 5, 1339-1352. 2002.
3.   Bruce Perry, M.D.,Ph.D.and Maia Szalavitz,  Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential—and Endangered, William Morrow, 2010.  page 21.
4.   Repacholi, B., and Gotnick, A. Early Reasoning about Desires: Evidence from 14- and 18-month-olds. Developmental Psychology, 33, 12-21. 1997.

*photo is of Ginger and her second son in 2008.

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