Raising Compassionate Kids

girl and kitten PAIDHow to raise kids who are kind and considerate is a hot topic these days. With so much bullying happening in the world, both in schools and via the Internet, it seems more important than ever to raise kids who can be thoughtful and empathetic towards other people.

Children have an inborn capacity for compassion. Although you can take steps to raise a compassionate child who is kind to others yet strong enough to stand up to hurtful words and actions when necessary, the most important thing to remember is that children may listen to what we say, but they model themselves on how we behave. This means that if you practice and demonstrate compassion (with yourself, your child and the other people in your world), your child is very likely to emulate that behavior.

Here are some ideas to help you integrate compassion into your everyday life in ways that you can share with your child:

Volunteer. Show your child that all people deserve kindness by serving together at a soup kitchen or volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. Let your child choose a volunteer activity that builds on interests they already have (for instance, the Humane Society if they love animals or reading aloud to the blind if they love to read).

***If you live in the Atlanta/Dunwoody area, check out The Packaged Good, where you and your kids can decorate and personalize care packages and create craft projects for people in need.

Get a pet or a small plot of dirt to cultivate. When a child is invested in the care of another living thing, they learn about nurturing themselves and others and are less likely to engage in bullying. And most pets and plants require time outdoors, so you’ll both get a good dose of fresh air!

Practice listening and allow feelings. I always tell parents that only a “hurting” child hurts others. When your child is hurting, instead of responses like “keep your chin up” or “big boys don’t cry,” invite your child to share his or her feelings. Particularly with younger children, hug them to provide soothing reassurance that it’s okay to experience and express feelings of distress. When you help them heal their hurts by allowing them to fully express their feelings, it will be easier for them to listen to others with an open and compassionate heart.

Limit time with video games and television showsespecially those with even mild violence. Numerous studies have shown that media violence promotes aggression and desensitizes kids to the consequences of violent behavior.

Experience a neighborhood or part of town (or even another country) very different from your own.  Try a restaurant in a different neighborhood or take in a festival where people have a different culture, language and music. Experiencing diversity shows a child that differences can be both interesting and fun!

Activities that promote compassion mean you’ll be bonding with your child in ways you can both feel good about. In addition, activities like volunteering or growing a garden serve another purpose–they remind both of you that you have something valuable to offer the world. Your child’s growing self-respect can help turn the tide of bullying and the devastating effect that this has on children’s lives.

♥♥♥ LOVE IN ACTION ♥♥♥ 

Choose one of the activities above and implement it this week. Then keep adding to your “active compassion” list as you become more and more intentional about modeling compassion and kindness.  Remember, your kids are watching you!

“We must become the people we want our children to be.”  Joseph Chilton Pearce

Author’s content used under license, © Claire Communications

How well are you listening to your children?

attentive father--PAIDWhen our children come to us with a problem, we usually want to help them. So we console, interpret, advise, distract or praise. Other times, we feel we must teach our children, and so we interrogate, lecture, moralize or order. And probably more often than we’d like, we respond angrily–blaming, criticizing, ridiculing, shaming or withdrawing.

However, all of these responses are problematic–whether with our children, or with the adults in our lives. They often serve to stop the communication of real feelings and arrest the development of problem-solving skills. I always say it’s up to us as adults to keep the door of communication open with our children. Oftentimes that means we need to talk less and listen more in order to keep our foot in the door.

Take the quiz below, adapted from the classic Parent Effectiveness Training, by Dr. Thomas Gordon, to assess your listening skills.

  1. I let my children feel their difficult feelings, knowing that comments such as “Everyone goes through this” deny the strength of their feelings.
  1. I try to listen for the need beneath the words and respond to that.
  1. I make it a point to check in to see if I’ve understood something in the way my child intended it. When I do, I try to keep my own feelings, opinions and guidance out of it.
  1. When my child tells me something, I try to respond with either noncommittal phrases (such as “I see” or “Is that so”) or with an invitation to say more (such as “Tell me more” or “Go ahead, I’m listening”).
  1. I notice that when I listen to my children’s problems, rather than make suggestions or give advice, my children often come up with their own excellent solutions.
  1. When I hear my child out fully, my child is often much more willing to listen to my thoughts and ideas.
  1. When I let my children express their feelings openly and completely, the feelings often seem to disappear quickly.
  1. I really want to hear what my child has to say; if I don’t have the time to listen right at that moment, I say so and make time for it later.
  1. I’ve learned to trust that my children can find perfectly good solutions to their problems on their own.
  1. I understand that my children are separate, unique individuals, and that their feelings and perceptions are not necessarily the same as mine.
  1. When I stay away from moralizing, interpreting, ordering and advising, I find that I learn a lot more about my children. Sometimes, I even learn from my children.
  1. I know that just listening doesn’t always bring about immediate change and that it’s sometimes OK to leave things on an inconclusive or incomplete note.
  1. I understand that listening to children express their feelings can help them accept a situation they know they cannot change.

Authentic communication with our children has rewards more valuable than a pot of gold. Real listening may be the rainbow bridge we need to get there. If you scored fewer “true” answers than false, you could probably benefit from improving your listening skills. I’d love to support you in building your communication skills and improving your family relationships.

I invite you to email me to set up a complimentary 20-minute consult to see if my services could benefit your situation.

♥♥♥ LOVE IN ACTION ♥♥♥

The way we interact and communicate with our children often determines whether or not the door to communication stays open.  Begin to notice those moments when you sense your child has “shut the door” on communication and try to remember what you said or did immediately prior to that.  Often our tone of voice or our choice of words comes across as criticizing, judging, or blaming. These are sure-fire ways to bring up defensiveness and cause the door to shut. If we want to keep the door to communication open, it’s up to us as parents to communicate in ways that invite openness, nonjudgment, acceptance, and collaboration.

 

Author’s content used under license, © 2008 Claire Communications

 

WTF?

little kid cryingBe honest.  What’s your first reaction when your child walks over and knocks down the Lego tower her brother has just spent the last ten minutes building? Or how about when your son is flipping like a fish in the grocery store aisle because you said no to the sugary cereal—again?

Let me guess.  Do you yell?  Do you put her in time-out?  Do you lecture, threaten, punish?  All of the above?  Do you casually push your cart past the melt-down in the cereal aisle pretending you don’t know the small creature writhing about?

Trust me, I know how difficult it is to keep yourself together when you child is “misbehaving” or “losing it.”  Not too long ago, it wasn’t uncommon, while Krogering, for the manager to open a special check-out line just for me in order to expedite getting me and my screaming banshee out of there!

But what I have found over the years is that the strategies listed above have several unintended results. Namely, (a) they tend to exacerbate the problem instead of solve it (especially with a strong-willed child), (b) they don’t help the child think about what they’ve done…or why…or how they might solve the problem differently next time, and (c) they don’t help parents feel competent and effective.

What I suggest instead is to get curious.  WTF?  What’s The Feeling being displayed through the behavior?  What emotion is your child acting out?  And then “name it to tame it” as child neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel says.

Help your child start to develop emotional literacy by guessing what he’s feeling and naming it:

“You sound very very frustrated.”
“You are so angry that you can’t have the cereal you want.”

Then validate the feeling by saying something like:

“It’s hard to really really want something and not be able to have it.”
“I know.  I hate it too when I can’t have what I want.”

WTN? Then guess What’s the Need underneath the feeling?  Often it’s a need for autonomy, for choice.  You can relate to that, right?  Don’t you also like having autonomy and choice in your life?  There’s nothing wrong with our children wanting that too.

It’s healthy to let them have as much choice as they can handle for their age.  And it’s also okay to set a loving limit when there are some choices that we decide are non-negotiable (like choices that have to do with safety, well-being, and health).

Then instead of trying to manage their behavior, spend that energy building your skill in being able to hold the limit and also hold your child’s intense feelings in response to the limit.  This can be hard to do, but it will help your child to develop insight into his own inner emotional life and, as he matures, to be able to problem-solve and find other ways to meet needs.

I invite you to develop the art of curiosityWhat’s the Feeling?  What’s the Need?   Developing honest curiosity about your child’s emotional life leads to greater understanding and a stronger connection.

Know Thyself: Part 3

boy on video game PAID
In Part 1 of this series I shared with you a glimpse of what is happening in your brain when you “lose it” with your child—when you yell, shame, blame, hit, or punish. The first question to ponder in order to Know Thyself better, is “Who is driving the bus in this moment?”  In Part 2 we explored the neuroscience behind our “triggers” and pondered the question of “What’s the story tape that’s playing in my head?” Let’s continue in Part 3 with another type of thinking that often disconnects us from others…

 

“Should” Thinking

There is a particular kind of thinking that goes on in our brains which often dictates whether we will experience anger and upset or compassion and curiosity.

If you consider for a moment a recent time when you got upset with your child (or with a spouse or co-worker), you will likely find that a split-second before your anger arose, there was a thought in your head of what the other person “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing.

He should get off the video game when I call him in to dinner.
She shouldn’t have taken the credit for the work I did.

The important thing to know is that it’s your “should” thinking that creates the anger, not what the other person is or isn’t doing.  Now I’m not saying you smile and pretend everything is okay when it’s clearly not.  I just want us to be clear that our emotions arise from our thinking, not what someone does or doesn’t do.  And this is encouraging, because we have a lot more control over our thinking than we have over the behavior of other people.

Here’s an example:
Let’s say you are meeting a friend for dinner and you both agreed to meet at 6:00.  It’s now 6:15 and your friend is not there.  Now it’s 6:30 and still no friend.  If your thinking is along the lines of, “She always does this.  She should be here at the time we agreed upon.  She should be more respectful of my time,” then you are likely to get upset with your friend.  If your thinking is, “I’m so glad she’s running late.  It gives me a little time to finish up this report I was working on,” then you’re likely to feel grateful for the extra time alone.  Same action, different thinking and very different emotions:  upset vs. grateful.

The facts are actually neutral:  Your friend said she would be there at 6:00.  It’s now 6:30 and she’s not there.  It’s your thinking of how things “should” be that give the situation a positive or negative flavor.  Shakespeare said it best in this line from Hamlet:  “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

So what’s the alternative?  How do you let someone know that you don’t enjoy their behavior without “shoulding” on them?  First you have to get out of your head where the “should” thinking lives and drop into your heart, where your feelings and needs reside.

Let’s take the example of:

He should get off the video game when I call him in to dinner.

Would you like to experience anger and upset or compassion and curiosity?  If you stay up in your head thinking he “should” get off the game…then you will probably experience anger and upset.  And I predict it will provoke defensiveness and resistance in your child and a conflict will ensue.

If instead you look inside to your feelings and needs, you might find something like:  “I’m feeling very frustrated and I need consideration for the time I put into cooking dinner.  I want us to eat while it’s hot and tasty.”  Just this bit of self-empathy can soothe the upset a little.  Then you can get curious and seek to understand why your son is not responding in the way you would like.  You can guess at his feelings and needs:  “Are you feeling frustrated that I’m asking you to stop the game because you’d like to keep playing until you finish this level?”  I predict getting in touch with your own feelings and needs and then guessing at your son’s feelings and needs (either out loud or silently inside) will lead to a more mutually satisfying solution.

When you express from the heart (feelings and needs) instead of the head (“should” thinking), the potential for finding strategies that work for everyone is much much higher.  Parenting is so much more enjoyable when you learn how to invite cooperation rather than force compliance.

If there’s a pattern of a particular behavior that happens frequently, I suggest you have these heart dialogues proactively, rather than wait until you’re in the middle of the situation.

You might say to your son, “I notice we have a fight almost every night when it’s dinnertime and you’re playing a video game.  I don’t enjoy fighting with you every night. Let’s brainstorm and find a way that works for both of us.”  As the trust builds over the course of many encounters of this kind, it gets easier to work through conflict.

Note of caution:  We are also very good at “shoulding” on ourselves.

 I shouldn’t have yelled at my child like that.
I should lose 20 pounds.

It’s hard to make the changes we want to make when we are in “should” thinking.  There’s something in our psyches that resists being told we “should” or we “ought to” do something.  It’s far more powerful to tune in to our feelings and needs.

I feel sad because I value (need) respect and love when relating to my child.
I feel frustrated because I value my well-being and the ease of fitting into my clothes.

With enough practice, we can transform our habitual “should” thinking into more thoughtful loving expressions of feelings and needs.  Getting in touch with what we value (our needs) creates an opening to make the changes we want to make.  As in all areas of life, an invitation always works better than a demand.  To encourage the kind of open willing change that comes from within, avoid “shoulding” on yourself, or others!

So now we have three powerful questions to ponder in order to Know Thyself better.

  1. Who is driving the bus in this moment?
  2. What’s the core belief, or “story” tape that’s playing in my head?
  3. Am I “shoulding” on others (or myself)?

I hope you have enjoyed the series.  My wish is that as you become more aware of your inner life you become more powerful and choiceful in interacting with those you love.  When you understand why you react the way you do by applying the three questions above, you can begin to transform those reactions into loving thoughtful responses instead.

“We are addicted to our thoughts.  We cannot change anything if we cannot change our thinking.”
–Santosh Kalwar

When one child is “mean” to another: healing both

When your child comes home in tears because someone was “mean” to them at school, the first line of defense is to listen to their outpouring of feelings and allow them to feel them….fully.  This is quite hard to do.  It’s heartbreaking for us as parents to be with our child’s painful feelings.  We just want to fix it for them, smooth it over and make sure that it never happens again.  But if we can just be with our child and let the tears fall (without trying to fix it), this is great medicine in and of itself.  Having someone to listen to them in this way, feeling fully heard and understood, will help your child develop inner strength and resiliency.  This simple, but healing, act of listening will help instill in them that they can weather life’s storms and come out okay.

Once your child feels fully heard and understood, you can help them brainstorm ways that they can “respond” to hurtful words or actions, rather than “react” emotionally or with their own damaging words.  Help your child come up with some key phrases that will help to protect her from the impact of a hurtful comment.  Some phrases may be, “That’s not nice and I’m not going to listen any more” (and she turns or moves away).  Or “It’s not okay to talk to me that way” (and she turns or moves away).  If the phrases and disengagement don’t work, then it’s time to get a teacher or adult involved.

While it’s helpful to teach our children tools so they can “stand up for themselves,” no child should have to go through this alone.  It’s our responsibility as parents, teachers, and adult mentors, to support our children in tough times and to model for them how to deal with others who have hurt us.  Usually, the impulse is to judge the “mean” child for their behavior and punish them for their wrongs.  But I believe this perpetuates the problem.  It adds another layer of blame and shame to what the “mean” child is already feeling, which is causing the behavior in the first place.  

I believe that a hurt-ful child is a hurt-filled child.  When a child’s needs are being met, they are loving and kind and have no need to act out in a hurtful way.  When one child is mean to another, there is something bigger going on below the surface, there are some needs that are not being met.  When we set up supportive systems (like peer mediation or restorative circles) in our families, schools, and other institutions to address this bigger issue of unmet needs, then we will start to see this type of behavior fade.

So instead of punishment for the “mean” girl, I would want her also to know that she is loved and cared about even after the harm she has done. I would want a loving adult in her life to sit with her and listen to what is going on for her to cause her to act out in this way.  And to help her understand what needs of hers she is trying to meet with such behavior and guide her to find better strategies to get those needs met with less cost to others (and to herself).  No one feels good being mean.

Here’s an illustration of how I used this approach with a similar situation in my family.  Recently, my son made an inappropriate attempt at humor by writing some text below another person’s photo and sending it out on Instagram.  Someone showed the Instagram to the person who was in the photo and that person was not amused and sent us (the parents) an email. 

Before I approached my son about it, I thought about my intentions.  I got clear that I wanted my son to learn how his actions affect others (especially how widespread the effect can be in today’s electronic world) and I wanted to give him a chance to restore his honor, to come back to his best self.  Above all, I wanted him to know that he is loved and cared about even when he makes mistakes.  And that he can count on me to support him through the uncomfortable and awkward stage of restitution—as he repairs the harm he has caused another and as he restores his own honor to himself.

I was very satisfied with our conversation.  Because I didn’t approach him with judgment and punishment, he didn’t become defensive.  He knew it was a stupid mistake and he sincerely regretted that his actions had caused embarrassment and hurt.  He sent an email to the person in the photo apologizing for sending the Instagram and for not thinking through how hurtful it might be.  The person in the photo responded with a very sweet email in return.  As far as I know, the hurt was repaired on both sides…and some valuable life lessons were learned to boot.

I’m reminded of a story I read in Alan Cohen’s book, Living from the Heart.  Here’s an excerpt which captures beautifully how, instead of punishing, we can love others back to their best self:

When a woman in a certain African tribe knows she is pregnant, she goes out into the wilderness with a few friends and together they pray and meditate until they hear the song of the child. They recognize that every soul has its own vibration that expresses its unique flavor and purpose. When the women attune to the song, they sing it out loud. Then they return to the tribe and teach it to everyone else. When the child is born, the community gathers and sings the child’s song to him or her.

Later, when the child enters education, the village gathers and chants the child’s song. When the child passes through the initiation to adulthood, the people again come together and sing. At the time of marriage, the person hears his or her song. Finally, when the soul is about to pass from this world, the family and friends gather at the person’s bed, just as they did at their birth, and they sing the person to the next life.

In the African tribe there is one other occasion upon which the villagers sing to the child. If at any time during his or her life, the person commits a crime or aberrant social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around them. Then they sing their song to them. The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity.

When you recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt another. A friend is someone who knows your song and sings it to you when you have forgotten it. Those who love you are not fooled by mistakes you have made or dark images you hold about yourself. They remember your beauty when you feel ugly; your wholeness when you are broken; your innocence when you feel guilty; and your purpose when you are confused.

May we all be surrounded by family and friends who know our song and who will sing it to us when we need it the most.