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June 11, 2020

Cultivating Compassion in Children

Ever have dinner with a therapist? My kids would be the first to tell you that it’s no ordinary affair. We dish up mac and cheese and existential debates at our dinner table. Like if sea animals were human would SeaWorld still exist? And will heaven be filled with OMG dolls?

A little strange I know, but psychotherapists love a good question and the unforeseen places they can take you. The greatest joy of childhood is being able to ask the unfiltered and awkward questions. Especially the ones that leave the most seasoned parent dumbfounded. I got one of those recently, and wanted to run clear in the opposite direction.

On the heels of George Floyd’s death, my son locked his big brown eyes on mine and asked, “Is it true that we can’t trust all white people?” I swallowed the lump in my throat and leaned in nervously. I began to teach him about allyship, giving him examples of white friends and public figures who stand for justice and equality. I taught him the importance of tuning into his body’s natural warning signals, to react cautiously in situations that feel scary, and to pay close attention to someone’s character.

Explaining racial injustice to my 11-year old black son felt deeply unfair.  But it was these very moments I had been preparing my kids for.  The years of deep belly breathing, compassion circles, and mindfulness paths they walked with their “hippy” mama came to a head when their little spirits would be asked to process such big realities like pandemics and racism.

Creating a safe space for kids to ask scary questions is the first step to cultivating compassion in children.  Leaning into difficult conversations and checking our own biases as parents are critical steps for parents as well. Children feel safe when their questions are validated and met with acceptance and non-judgment.

A gentle touch on a child’s hand during a discussion calms the nervous system, letting them know that they’re not in trouble. Gentle touch also works wonders with parents as well. Before diving into a difficult conversation with your child, notice the part of you that feels anxious. Notice where in your body you feel tension and apply gentle pressure to that area.

One of the most disarming questions we can ask in conversations about race is simply, “What triggers you?” Or even better Black American novelist Toni Morrison once asked, “Who are you without your fear coat?” Both of these questions ask us to momentarily step away from our defenses, and examine the experiences that shaped who we are. People may be able to push your buttons, but they didn’t install them. Years of disappointments, trauma, and toxic associations become stashed away in our psyche, leaving all of us prone to snapping at the slightest offense.

Helping children understand their hot buttons is also key to raising compassionate children.  Hot buttons are emotional triggers that we carry that can easily be set off. Children who are able to express their emotions feel more agency over their mind and body.  Here you can discover educated instructors and kids gyms La Jolla. A great exercise to try with your family is the relationship tune-up.  Once a month, we sit down as a family to tackle two important questions:

  1. Is there something that I need that I’m not getting?
  2. If I were getting it, what would it look like?

Relationship tune-ups either done on a monthly or quarterly basis, allow family members to relieve any tension building, maintain open and honest communication, and practice compassionate listening. Children are able to assert their needs and learn the difference between making loving requests rather than angry demands.

As we stand witness to the events that have swept across the nation, we have no choice as parents but to hope for a better world. We may wring our hands in frustration or turn a blind eye in denial, but collective healing begins with the hearts and minds of our children.  Giving your child a safe space to ask questions, helping them identify triggers and express their needs are key factors for cultivating compassion in kids.

Exposing your child to people from different walks of life builds greater compassion and understanding. Supplement your family discussions with field trips to cultural events in town, attend local libraries and restaurants to enjoy new foods. Encourage play dates and school events that bring students of all colors together. Most importantly, as parents we must lead by example, diversifying our own experiences so that we can model compassion and acceptance for our children.