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Is Compassion Children’s Most Admirable Quality?

Like diamonds, compassion is a rare gem in our society that makes kids rich.

Compassion
Compassion means reaching out to others.
Think of all of the qualities that you admire most in others and that you would most like to instill in your children. My guess is that compassion is high on your list. Why is that? Perhaps because, like diamonds, compassion is a rare gem in a society in which selfishness and disregard for others are as common as rhinestones.

Consider what compassion is. Most fundamentally, it is “not about me.” Compassion involves being aware of and caring about the needs of others. It means wanting to help others who are less fortunate than you. Compassion has so many other wonderful attributes associated with it, for example, benevolence, good will, unselfishness, and empathy, just to name a few. If these qualities were ingredients to be mixed and baked, you would have the recipe for about as fine a person as you could imagine.

We are assured by experts that compassion is hard wired into all human beings because such qualities help us to become functioning members of society. But, if you’re like me, you would swear that children are born without an ounce of compassion in them; when children are young, they only seem to care about themselves. We are also told by development experts that egocentrism is a stage through which all children will inevitably outgrow. But for parents, that knowledge is little solace when they see their children seemingly incapable of concern for others, much less compassion in any form. How often have you had this exchange with your children: You: “Please be kind to your brother.” Child: “No, I won’t.” (he says stubbornly). You: “Please be kind to your brother.” (said with increasing frustration). Child: “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t” (said with angry finality). You: “You will be kind to your brother or else.” Definitely not the best way to send a message of compassion to your children, I’m sure you would agree.

If you follow the science of genetics, you know that just because a trait is transmitted from parents to children genetically doesn't mean that it will emerge in children naturally. Rather, the new understanding of genetics is that, contrary to the old argument of nature vs. nurture, the new thinking is nature via nurture. In other words, genes (nature) are like light switches that are flipped or not based on children's experiences (nurture). As a result, the problem is that, even if children are genetically predisposed to compassion, what begins as a stage can turn into an entrenched attribute if that switch isn't turned on. And the way parents ensure that the switch is flipped is that children get messages that discourage selfishness and encourage compassion.

It’s never too early to get your children out of their “the world revolves around me,” “I want it now,” and “I don’t care about anyone” world. In fact, you must send messages of compassion early and often because when they enter the world of popular culture and peers, they will be getting messages that actually confirm their egocentric genetic predisposition. From what often start as admonitions to “be kind to your little sister” to clear and persistent messages of compassion through many conduits that they will slowly but surely absorb, seeing the emergence of compassion unfold in your children before your eyes is a wonderful thing to behold. But it definitely won’t happen unless you make it happen.

Popular Culture’s Messages about Compassion

Despite its beauty and value, compassion is not a trait that is held in high esteem in our popular culture. To the contrary, if our popular media (e.g., television, film, music) are any measure, people worship at the altar of “me;” narcissism, egotism, vanity, pride, entitlement, and disinterest toward others are attributes to which we should aspire. Video games aggrandize violence and misogyny. Reality TV encourages greed, deception, and humiliation. Our culture of celebrity makes important the trivial and trivializes the important. Professional sports fosters attitudes of “there is no I in team” and "win at all cost.”  Popular culture sends messages to your children that it’s cool to be cold and, even worse, that compassion is for weaklings, wimps, and losers.

Popular culture doesn't want your children to be compassionate. To the contrary, it wants your children to be self-centered and totally focused on having their own needs met. When children are acculturated into "Generation Me," they become easy prey for popular culture because its messages about self-indulgence go directly to their egocentric need for immediate gratification—"You can have it all, now, and without any effort."

There is no more powerful example of this message of selfishness than the widespread popularity of the expression, “It’s all about me.” This expression means that everyone and everything in children’s lives should be directed toward satisfying their needs. It also tells children that the needs and wishes of others are irrelevant.

How the Other Half Lives

Our world, with its rapid advancements in communication, appears to be shrinking and the influence that people can have on others, both good and bad, has never been greater. Yet, so many children are being taught to look no further than the narrow world in which they live.

In earlier generations, most children had greater contact with others different from themselves—different races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic status—and this contact fostered an awareness of and appreciation for life on “the other side of the tracks” and, by extension, compassion for those who may be different from them.

In contrast, many children today, because of private education, homogenous neighborhoods, and gated communities, have little exposure to people and cultures different from their own. Without a broader perspective of their place in the world or how others in the world live, children are not given the opportunity to develop compassion and empathy for those less fortunate than they.

The Value of Compassion

Developing compassion starts with the recognition that we are not isolated creatures, but rather individuals who are a part of many groups—families, communities, races, religions, nationalities, and citizens of planet Earth—that must not only coexist, but actually need each other to survive. This realization leads to an awareness of others; who they are, the culture in which they live, what they believe, how they live their lives, and the challenges that they face.

Compassion provides us with a context in which we can place ourselves in relation to others. In doing so, we realize that people are more alike than they are different. We all want to be healthy and happy, safe and secure, and feel connected; we work, we play, we raise families. In recognizing the similarities between the most disparate people and cultures, we gain our first sense of compassion through feelings of empathy, that we all feel much the same: love, sadness, joy, pain, hope, despair, inspiration, frustration. From empathy, we develop a concern for others and a wish to put others’ needs ahead of our own when necessary. What makes compassion so important is not just that it elicits thoughts and feelings of concern for others, but rather it spurs people to want to respond to the needs of those for whom they feel empathy.  

Compassion can enable your children to understand others who are different from themselves and will allow them to see perspectives different from their own. Compassion will open the door to your children being able to contemplate ideas and experiences that will enrich their lives and expand their world view. It shows children the joy of reaching out to others and contributing to making the world a better place.

Compassion gives children an appreciation and caring for others and a deep connection to the world in which they live. Children learn that acting compassionately is also in their best interests. Compassion encourages others to act compassionately toward them, providing them with support and assistance when they are in need.

Children learn that compassion can bring them meaning, satisfaction, and joy that they could never experience living in the egocentric world in which many children now live. An important lesson that compassionate children learn is that compassion begets compassion and that everyone benefits from its expression.

Compassion has been shown to be beneficial to people in other ways. It acts as armor against popular culture. People who value compassion, helping, and contributing to the world are less likely to be seduced by popular culture’s values related to wealth, materialism, superficiality, and popularity. Compassionate people have also been found to be happier and more well adjusted than those who hold common popular cultural values. They also have more energy, fewer behavioral problems, and a lower incidence of depression and anxiety than people who have bought into popular culture’s values. The bottom line is that compassion is a very good message for children to receive and ingrain because it has powerful benefits for themselves and others.

I will explore how you can help your children develop compassion in future posts.

This blog post is excerpted from my third parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You (The Experiment Publishing, 2011).

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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