My four-year-old daughter was watching Cinderella for the first time with her cousins last week when she started inconsolably crying.
It turns out one of Cinderella’s mouse friends had been captured by a cat, and my little animal lover was devastated. This same child also tries desperately to keep her little sister away from one of our cats, whom she has nicknamed, “scratchy cat.” The cat scratched her once when she was too young to understand not to pull a cat’s tail, and she doesn’t want her sister to suffer the same consequences of toddler curiosity.
Is the tendency to show compassion an inborn trait, or is it learned? Between commercialism, violence on television, violence in video games, and bullying on popular television shows and in everyday media, it seems the odds are stacked against compassion. We live in a “me” world.
Notre Dame psychology professor and author of Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development: From Research to Practice Darcia Narvaez says that by the time children in the United States reach age 20, they have become extremely self-centered. She notes a decrease in empathy in addition to an increase in both narcissism and avoidance attachment among our college students.
“They don’t act well, don’t think well, and have a difficult time maintaining relationships,” she explains. But as parents, if we lead our children on the correct path and foster the skills of compassion, moral aptitude, and kindness, we can help them to grow into considerate, grateful, generous, empathetic, and successful adults.
It starts at birth
Teaching compassion starts early, according to Narvaez. Her studies indicate that children who are reared similarly to the way our ancestors were are far more likely to become compassionate adults displaying greater empathy and a stronger development of conscience.
“Humans are social mammals characterized by intense social bonding,” explains Narvaez. “Hunter-gatherer children and adults are very calm, hear better, see better, and are more perceptive. Things that we are not anymore.” The parenting traits of hunter-gatherers have been lost in the United States over the last 60 years to a more stressful, fast-paced, convenience-first way of living. This, according to Narvaez, is hurting us on multiple levels, including our health and the ability to show empathy and compassion.
Contributing factors, she says, include the switch from breast milk to formula, the introduction of baby carriers rather than skin-to-skin contact, reduction of co-sleeping and the introduction of isolated sleeping, and a lack of time outdoors.
Every moment in the development of child is affected by nurture, Narvaez believes. Most systems have to be shaped by parenting experience. It’s all intertwined. By four months old, the mother and child relationship is set up. The responsiveness of the mother predicts all sorts of other things later, including the personality of the child and the development of compassion. In fact, Narvaez has found six child-rearing characteristics that her research shows help children to build a strong moral sense right from birth. These are:
- Positive touch including carrying, cuddling, and holding your baby and children as much as possible—constantly if you can.
- Immediate response to your baby’s crying and fussiness. Many people believe this will spoil a child, but it is impossible to spoil a baby because she is only crying out of her basic needs for eating, cleaning, love, and comfort. If a baby gets too upset, her brain is flooded with toxic chemicals, according to Narvaez. However, if a parent responds promptly, the baby’s brain stays calm, and the child learns trust.
- Breastfeeding for at least two years, even up to age six. Narvaez explains that a child’s immune system isn’t formed until age six, and breast milk provides the building blocks for the immune system.
- Multiple adult caregivers who love the child, including grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
- Free play with friends of different ages.
- Natural childbirth, because it provides mothers with the hormone boosts that provide the energy to properly care for their newborn.
If you’re like me, you probably parented your infants with a few of these techniques, but likely not all. Even if you wanted to practice one or all of these approaches, it may have been impossible for various reasons. Fear not, because your child can still grow up to be compassionate and empathetic. Here are some practical parenting tips.
1. Speak softly.
A calm home builds a calm child. Susan Usha Dermond, educator and author of Calm and Compassionate Children, says, “Turn off the media and have more silence. Learn to be comfortable together in the quiet. Become more calm in yourself as a parent through… tai chi, warm baths, whatever works for you. Calmness is a condition that is needed for compassion. An agitated, over-stimulated child will have difficulty accessing his inner resources of love and kindness.”
2. Practice gentleness.
Young children don’t know better than to bounce on the dog or smack the cat instead of petting them. It is your job as a parent to point your child in the direction of gentleness towards animals and people. Physically show her how to be gentle with animals and babies. Guide her in this practice.
3. Expect their help.
Your children are capable of much more than you give them credit for. Young children can (and should) help out around the house. Designate specific chores depending on the age and maturity level of your children, such as teaching your four-year-old to clear her plate after meals and showing your toddler how to put away a toy when he is finished with it. Chores give children a sense of responsibility and purpose in the family, which will lead to the same sense of responsibility in the outside world as adults.
4. Keep them with you.
Take your children with you on your errands. Hug them. When children are separated from parents they become anxious, especially babies. That mother and child bond should not be broken. If you must leave young children for extended periods, leave them in the care of an adult who loves them, such as a grandparent or aunt.
5. Teach manners.
Rudeness is commonplace these days. It shows up in road rage when someone cuts us off while driving. You witness it when someone’s dinner order is cooked incorrectly in a restaurant. There’s also crude behavior that is favored by preteens and teenagers. Manners are learned and must be taught at a young age, then reinforced throughout the young adult years. Usha Dermond urges parents to talk with children about forgiving anyone who is being unkind or angry, and teach your child to recognize that person’s unhappiness.
6. Celebrate kindness.
“When parents notice compassionate acts, ‘Look at that boy comforting his sister’ or ‘Your dad is so kind to his mother,’ children learn that this is a desirable trait,” says Usha Dermond, “As they get older, parents can include them in showing compassion—going to visit someone who is bedridden, trapping the spider and taking it outside rather than killing it. Children learn compassion from these real-life experiences, not from being told to ‘Be nice.’” In other words, focus and highlight the positive, not just the negative.
7. Get outside.
Children no longer spend as much time outdoors. According to Narvaez, often this is due to the parent’s fear of kidnapping or injury combined with less recess time at school. But being in nature is essential to our growth as moral individuals. Spend time with your children outside. Hike together, walk the dog together, and get back to basics. If your children are older, Narvaez says this is a great way to reawaken parenting intuitions.
8. Provide downtime.
Children don’t get enough downtime or free play anymore. They have schedules filled to the max with school, homework, dance class, baseball, and so on. This breeds the stress-filled lifestyle that we all complain about but can’t seem to get away from. Your children need to be children, free to explore their world and play pretend in their backyard. Let them.
9. Lead by example.
At the doctor’s office the other day, I heard a young girl call her mother a “dumb ass.” As shocked as I was at that, I was equally shocked to watch the mother respond by smacking her child. Be a compassionate person yourself, and know whom your children associate with.
“More important than society’s influence,” says Usha Dermond,” is the influence of a family’s circle of friends. Children will feel they have to accumulate toys and video games if they socialize with other children who have them. If they socialize with families who emphasize experiences: music, nature, board games, nurturing animals, and the like, they will be much more like to value unselfishness.”
No matter how old your children are, you can begin to teach them compassion, empathy, and moral responsibility. It will take time and patience, but raising your child to be a caring—and therefore successful—adult will be more than worth it.