Compassion Starts With You: 5 Ways to Model Empathy, Kindness and Compassion to Kids
We just finished our first full week of the school year, and like many families, the transition has not been smooth. No matter how much we stick to routines during the summer, keep early bedtimes, and discuss and plan for the new year, we often find ourselves hanging on for the wild ride that ensues during these early weeks.
By Friday night, I felt as if I deserved a medal for just surviving, and flipping my lid just a wee bit less than I might have.
As crazy as our 4- and 7-year-old children seemed this week, I kept reminding myself that this was normal. We were all adjusting to our new schedule, new expectations at school, new friends and teachers, and a shift from the more relaxed days of summer. There were many meltdowns and tears, a regression in manners and motivation to do things for themselves, and a whole lot of exhaustion. It makes sense that the week seemed to be one of the hardest we have had in a while.
I accepted where my children are at and was able to roll with it because I had compassion for them.
But what I realized at the end of the week, in my utterly depleted state, was that something important was missing; compassion for myself.
It’s not enough to just be compassionate with my children; if I want them to learn how to be compassionate, I must model it in how I live my life on a daily basis, and I must start by showing myself compassion for getting through a very challenging week.
This moment to reflect on compassion gave me an opportunity to think about how important it is to model compassion in action for our kids. Our children are watching us. How do we deal with our emotions? How do we talk to those around us? What do small moments of compassion look like?
Here are 5 tips for keeping compassion alive in day-to-day life with kids:
1) Practice self compassion. Remember, we are most effective at teaching that which we do ourselves. If we want our children to have compassion for themselves, we must show them how! You can do this by recognizing that parenting is hard. Some days we don’t deal with things the way we want to. Some days we are exhausted, and boxed macaroni and cheese is all we can put together. Sometimes we need to take a break because we are so exasperated that we can’t think straight.
Whatever it is that you are judging yourself for, let it go. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. Instead of beating yourself up, remind yourself that you are human. When things have calmed down, let your kiddo know that you too make mistakes. Apologize for any hurts you may have caused, and tell them how you hope to do it different next time. The compassion and hugs you get from your child will likely help heal you as well.
2) Practice compassion toward your partner. This is a big one. We may be compassionate to our children when they have a hard day, but how often do we do this for our partners? Often we save our best communication skills for our children and let it all go when it comes to our significant others.
Remember those eyes that are watching your every move? Many of us respond compassionately when a child forgets a chore only to berate our partner for forgetting to take out the garbage! Those eyes are then learning that only some people deserve compassion and I know that is not what we are aiming to teach. We all have bad days, we all forget things, and we all deserve compassion. Next time your partner says or does something that frustrates you, pull out the compassion you are able to show to others. Try saying, “You seem really stressed tonight. Can I give you a hug?” Not only will you be modeling compassion to your children, you are likely to have a more pleasant evening as well!
3) Show compassion toward your child. This is where your child gets to feel compassion in action. Yes, we are parents, we must teach self-discipline, accountability, responsibility, and all the other good stuff we want our children to have. However, we MUST do it in compassionate ways. This means taking a moment to look beyond the behavior in question and show some compassion for the belief behind it.
Here’s an example of what this kind of compassionate discipline looks like. Your child interrupts you when we are on the telephone. Yes, it’s an annoying behavior. Yes, we want them to do something different. If we yell or punish for this behavior, we are only dealing with the actual behavior and our child walks away feeling shamed and blamed. When adults and children feel this way, it hardly inspires us to cooperate or do something better next time. We will get much further when we use compassion to connect with the belief behind the behavior.
What if when you got off the phone you said, “It was hard for you to wait while mommy was on the phone. I wonder what you were feeling?” You may get nothing, so you could guess and see what they think. “I imagine you might have felt lonely, and maybe even jealous that someone else was getting mommy’s attention.” My guess is you would get an emphatic “Yes!”
Here comes the compassionate discipline part.
“Sometimes I need to make phone calls and I am able to get through them quicker without interruption. What do you think would help you through that time when mommy needs to pay attention to something else?”
I actually remember this discussion when my oldest was three. She wanted to have a coloring book set aside that she only used when I was on the phone. We decided together to keep it by the house phone so she would always know where it was.
4) Practice compassion in the car. And in the post office, the grocery store, and anywhere else that may raise our stress levels. Ever let a snide comment slip out in the car at the driver who just cut you off? Ever have your child call you out on it? If it hasn’t happened yet, I am sure it will.
These are the really little moments. The moments we are not even aware that our children are watching. A stranger does something that gets in our way and we comment out loud about it. We call them idiots, wonder what sort of stupid person does that, we snub someone. I got caught on this one day recently as I growled loudly at the person who was driving erratically ahead of me when we were already late to where we were going.
My daughter asked me what the driver did that was so bad. I had to stop and think. I said, “You know, I am a little stressed that we are late, and I felt angry that this person was in my way. But, they may be late too, or may be lost.”
What followed was that I relaxed! I stepped out of myself and adopted a more compassionate perspective about the driver ahead. Even though what I said to my daughter was about me trying to model compassion after being critical of the other driver, it really did shift my mood. That’s one of the great things about compassion; it makes US feel good when we show compassion to others. Even annoying drivers!
5) Draw attention to compassionate moments. There are good things happening around us all the time. A child offers to share a toy during a play date. A sibling gets an ice pack or tissue for a crying little sister. The person walking behind you picks up the paper you dropped and runs to catch you. These are all small moments, and they happen every day.
When these opportunities come along, pause and reflect on them with your child. Say how kind it was for the person to do what they did. If you were the recipient of the kindness, share how it made you feel. “I am so grateful she noticed I dropped this and brought it to me. It feels nice to know people are looking out for others.”
If your child is the recipient of the kindness, ask how they felt. “I notice your brother brought you an ice pack when you fell. How did it feel to have him do something nice for you like that?” If your child was the compassionate one, check in with her too! “You shared your toy with your friend when she wanted to play with it. I know some times it is hard to share and you did it anyway. How did it feel to do that? How do you think your friend felt when you shared?”
These may sound like silly questions, but they are giving your child a chance to reflect on those small moments. These questions are helping your child connect an action with a feeling. All of these moments build up to give your child an understanding of what compassion feels like, both as the giver and receiver, and it goes a long way to helping them practice compassion in daily life.
While not every moment is a teachable moment, and not every day seems rife with examples of compassion, there is a great deal we can do in the small moments to build our child’s empathy, caring and understanding. The most significant way to help your child learn these skills starts with us. We must take the opportunity to model compassion to ourselves, our families, and all those we interact with if we truly want to raise compassionate children.
Sarina Behar Natkin, LICSW is a parent educator and consultant in the Seattle area. She co-founded GROW Parenting to provide parents with the tools and support they need to raise healthy children and find more joy in parenting. GROW Parenting offers parent coaching and classes and frequently speaks at area schools and businesses. Check out GROW Parenting’s Blog for more great tips on common parenting issues and Facebook for the latest news in parent education!Google+