“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” –C.S. Lewis
Authors Charles R. Ridley and Robert E. Logan inspired me to reflect on the push-pull of desiring to cultivate compassion in children while simultaneously shielding them from emotional pain. If we want to invest in the development of a child’s compassionate heart, there are costs involved. We decide for ourselves whether the cost is worth it.
Cost—A child’s awareness of emotional pain
When a family is touched by disappointment or loss, isn’t our natural inclination to run, to find a way to protect ourselves and our children? “To care—at a deep and authentic level of our spirits—opens us up to pain,” says Ridley. Certainly we monitor how many details the child knows. We also stay emotionally connected with them through their discomfort as they find composure in the knowledge that they need not fear emotional pain.
Cost—A child’s feelings of inadequacy
When children recognize that hardships have entered life—their life or someone else’s—they learn that they are not able to fix it or change it. We’re tempted to step in and pump them up with positive affirmations because we want them be confident and happy. Yet to develop a compassionate heart we must leave children with their feelings of being powerless. We come alongside them to help them form their own healthy way of handling these feelings.
Cost—An adult’s mandate to show compassion in action
We are busy people. “Still, we realize that kids learn from what we do more than from what we say. So we stop what we’re doing and tend to a person who needs help especially when it is not convenient to do so,” noted Signe Whitson. “We hold ourselves back before speaking in a frustrating interpersonal interaction. This is costly when we are tired and swamped by many responsibilities.”
Tweetable: If we want to invest in the development of a child’s compassionate heart, there are costs. See more here. Click to Tweet
How do you explain why something good or bad happens in your life? To what do you attribute your successes and/or failures? Our self-talk generally gravitates toward holding ourselves responsible or charging others. But sometimes it is jumbled up.
Listen for how children attribute the good and the bad in life.
Certain children tend to put the responsibility for all failures on their own flaws and weaknesses: “I failed the test because I’m so dumb.”
On the other hand, they attribute all successes to fate, a bizarre circumstance, or someone else’s charity. “I got an A on the test because the teacher made the test too easy.”
Some children tend to attribute all their successes to their own ingenuity, good looks and great ability. Success is because of ME, even if there were others involved: “The play was a success because I had the lead (never mind the efforts of everyone else in it!)”
On the other side of the coin, they attribute all failures to everyone else’s ineptness and/or circumstances beyond their control. “I failed that test because the teacher made it so hard no one could pass (even though more than half the class did).”
“Poor me” or “Lucky me”
Hear the patterns in how children report life events, such as their school day or their recent soccer game. Sometimes these spoken statements become their self-talk and sometimes their self-talk surfaces in their spoken words.
The self-talk of children who blame themselves goes something like this: “Life doesn’t have many good things for me.” Or “If I fail, I will lose my value and I cannot let myself risk it.” Self-talk of kids who blame others can sound like, “I have nothing to apologize for.” Or “Life owes me happiness and success.” Or “Why am I in trouble for fighting? Joe hit me first so it’s his fault I was fighting.”
Our actions can help them find balance. Conversation Starters —
- “Whose responsibility is it really?”This week, call attention to times the children are either not taking responsibility for their behavior or assuming responsibility for something that’s not their fault. When this happens, ask them to “say what is true” about whose fault it is.
- “Brainstorm your evidence.” Guide the children to stop and be mindful about their self-talk, rather than continue on autopilot. Reject the faulty self-talk by brainstorming with the child all the reasons why he or she knows it is not true: “Dad breaks promises to lots of people, not just me; there’s nothing I can do about the fact he goes out with his friend lots of Saturdays,” and so on.
Game: Make-A-Monster Scavenger Hunt
Illustrate that the lies we tell ourselves can add up to a monster voice living in our heads. Send the kids outside to find junk materials to build a monster: dead sticks and leaves, old cans, stones and other “junk.” This monster is the lies we tell ourselves. Have a variety of miscellaneous materials they can also use, such as yarn, markers, glue sticks, tape, buttons, etc. Let them create the biggest monster they can. [With younger kids, you could keep it for a week and, each time they correct their self-talk, unattach one monster section and trash it.]
Tweetable: Conversation starters and a scavenger hunt illustrate for children how to overlay new, positive self-talk statements. Click to Tweet
Children are just like us… we practice occasional acts of kindness toward others, but more generally take an outlook focused on ourselves. How can we encourage acts of kindness so children’s perspectives focus outward more often — on the gifts they have to contribute to the world? On the good they can do for others? On understanding the feelings and perspectives of others?
Think through this list with one specific child in mind.
- I support the child’s wish to offer hospitality through his or her invitations to family, friends and even strangers.
- I use my money, time and talents for the good of myself and my family while also considering the needs of others. The child has seen me set aside money for charitable contributions.
- I encourage the child to use his or her own money, time and talents in service to others. I can then point to specific ways the child did this.
- When praying, I notice I am able to say “Thanks God,” in addition to asking for favors. Many times I tell the child what I am thankful for and we talk about gratitude.
- When the child practices spontaneous acts of kindness or generosity, I notice and point it out to the child.
Such a posture doesn’t come about naturally for most of us.
It requires some effort and intentionality, as seen in this parent’s story.
My daughter, now 13, still remembers the morning we passed a woman at an intersection with a sign asking for help. Being 5 years old, she could read the words “Hungry. Have some spare change? Anything helps.”
As my daughter reached for the spare change I keep in the car for parking meters, I explained, “Sometimes it’s not good to give money directly, but her sign says she is hungry, so maybe she would like some breakfast.”
At that, my daughter brightened and we drove around the block to pass the woman again. She readily agreed to breakfast and smiled at my cute curly-haired girl.
We had breakfast at the 24-hour diner on the corner and listened to some of her story she was willing to share.
It left a lasting impression on my daughter, as well as a continuing desire to help the poor.
Review the five points again. What are some ways you can help the children in your life practice generous living?
Tweetable: How we encourage acts of kindness so children’s perspectives focus outward more often. 5 ideas here. Click to Tweet
Most university-bound teens engage in volunteer work of some kind—it’s almost a requirement for a good college application.
But is there more to it than that?
Some teens say Yes! In addition to building their resume, some say that volunteering helped them:
- see that their destiny can actually involve doing something that comes easily to them
- develop compassion for others
- discover what they’re good at
- contribute to their quest for meaning
Help them think it through before they commit
One family attends a Presbyterian Church that expects all regular attenders (teens and adults) to volunteer in some way once a month. The idea is that the church belongs to all who call themselves a part of it, and if everyone does a little bit no one is stuck trying to do everything.
So this family is helping their kids think through how they can volunteer. Some of their choices include working in the baby nursery, teaching the younger kids’ classes, cleaning up the meeting area after the service, playing an instrument on the worship team once a month, helping with the community outreach to refugees by teaching English as a second language.
Significant conversations about destiny can occur
Having the teens think about volunteering has created interesting conversations about what each teen is good at, what they care about, what they have to contribute, and how they can feel like a contributing part of the community.
An astonishing ethical statement
Recent research indicates support for a possible universal desire: Human beings around the world derive [happiness] from using their financial resources to help others—a surprising ethical and spiritual statement. Even more astonishing is that our little acts of love are capable of producing passion in us that satisfies our thirst for meaning.
Consider the teens in your life. How could they engage in giving to others through loving, helpful acts? How might those actions help themselves as well?
Tweetable: A teen’s acts of charity are capable of producing passion that satisfies the thirst for meaning. Click to Tweet