Compassion is so important, so foundational to effective parenting that I have dedicated several articles to the subject. We must get compassion right if we are to be effective parents.
Here is a fundamental truth undergirding compassion: children do what they do for reasons that make sense to them. Children do not cry in the night because they love to make us suffer. They do not fight with their siblings because they are hateful people. In every case they do what they do in order to survive. Their actions may not be the wisest approach, but they are motivated by some perceived need in their lives.
There is an important corollary to this observation. When we think children’s behavior is crazy or irrational, we do not understand them. Our indignation at their irrationality is a sign that we need to stretch our compassion.
Notice how beautifully this truth fits with God’s objective of engaging us with each other redemptively. Our feeling of irritation is always a call for us to be more humble and compassionate. It invites us to be open to one of God’s still-developing children. This is a test of our readiness to do what God does: offer compassion to strugglers and learners.
So, for me, the final kind of understanding that cultivates holy compassion is understanding humanness or fallenness. We all share that desperate fallenness. We all need compassion for each other.
Have you ever felt lost, hurt, and desperate? Have you cried out in the dark for compassion? Have you yearned for someone to pick up your battered and injured soul along the road of life, bind up your wounds, and carry you to healing? I have. And I have been amazed at the compassion Jesus offers me. My stupidity has cost Him dearly, yet He comes to my broken soul, offering His tears and blood to heal my mind and heart.
That is what He asks us to do as we deal with our children who are human and fallen—and childish. This is the foundational task of parenting. It is also foundational for discipleship. When we are baptized, we covenant “to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). Is there any place we can do this that is more important than in our relationships with our children? Is there any better way “to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in” (ibid) than to show compassion to God’s children whom He has entrusted to our care?
Providing Emotional First Aid
When our daughter Emily was in kindergarten, she and a neighbor friend named Donna often skipped their way across the street to the school playground to kick a ball or ride the swings. One day as the two girls left our house and headed to the playground, Emily stopped at the curb and Donna dashed into the street. A slow-moving car was unable to stop and hit Donna, sending her skidding along the pavement. She lay in the street, clearly injured and frightened.
What is the right parental response to Donna’s situation? Would it make sense to approach her and remind her of oft-repeated and wise counsel to look both ways before crossing the street? Would it make sense to tell her that maybe she needed a timeout to reflect on her carelessness? Would we ground her or demand that she apologize to the frightened driver?
Of course not. Such a response would be abusive. We ran to Donna and offered words of love and assurance even as we helped her get comfortable. We called for her parents and appropriate medical care as we provided first aid. We would stay by her side doing anything we could to help her feel safe and to start the healing process. (Fortunately, Donna fully recovered.)
Far more often than we realize, our children are injured by painful encounters with life. They come home bruised, skinned, and bleeding from hurtful run-ins with mortality. We do not realize how often our children feel frightened and wounded. If we try to understand their pains and challenges, we are likely to look at them with compassion rather than judgment and impatience. God calls us to offer emotional first aid. We are under covenant to “bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light” (Mosiah 18:8). That is compassion’s mandate.
The Fruits of Compassion
It is common for us to assume that showing compassion may increase or extend the child’s pain. Will the child get stuck in self-pity when we focus on his or her pain? Experience, research, and God say otherwise. When we show heartfelt compassion for someone else’s pain, we not only show that others can comprehend that person’s pain but also that we are genuinely touched by the feeling of his or her infirmity (see Hebrews 4:15). The child and the child’s feelings matter to us.
God Himself sets the perfect example. In the stunning revelation in which He and Enoch observed the suffering of God’s wicked children on earth, Enoch was shocked to discover God weeping. Enoch asked how someone as great as He could possibly be touched so deeply—especially by wicked children. God replied, “The whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmanship of mine hands; wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?” (Moses 7:37).
Amazing! God does not sit in a distant heaven untouched by our struggles. He weeps with us and for us. He asks us to show similar compassion for our children when they suffer.
Teaching with Compassion in Times of Struggle
Compassion sets the stage for effective teaching and parenting. Effective compassion requires us to get out of our own story and step into the stories of our children’s lives. Let’s consider a couple of common examples.
Imagine that your teenager is working on his algebra homework and groans, “This is so hard! I just don’t get it.” The instinctive adult response is to say, “It’s not hard. You can do it.” Now consider the inevitable meta-message we sent to the child when we say such things: “You think this is hard. It really isn’t. Everyone else in the world can do algebra. If you can’t do it, you must be stupid.”
This harsh message is certainly not our intent. But because we spoke from our point of view (“Yikes, I don’t want my child to give up—I must push him forward”) rather than the child’s point of view (“I’m lost—I don’t know what to do”), we discouraged rather than encouraged our child.
Consider a different response, one tuned to the child’s feelings and experience. “I can see why algebra feels so hard. You are learning a new language filled with symbols and a lot of rules for solving problems. I appreciate how hard you are working to learn that new language.” The emphasis in this response is appreciation for the difficulty of the task, and appreciation for the child’s efforts.
We love our children. If another adult were to say insensitive, demeaning, or hurtful things to them, we would do whatever we could to stop that person from having a negative influence in our children’s lives. Yet, sometimes, without realizing it, we allow ourselves to be that negative voice in their lives. The natural parent is an enemy to children—unless his or her heart has been softened by the goodness of God.
Listening to a Child’s Heart
Compassion is useful not only when children feel hurt by life but also when they are disappointed, thwarted, or frustrated. Imagine a parent who takes his child to the store. The child sees a toy he wants. He asks for it, then begs for it, and finally begins whining to have it. This behavior could tempt any parent to irritation. “You have all kinds of toys at home! And most of them are scattered all over the house because you never pick them up! I’m not buying you anything else. I don’t want to hear any more whining!”
This response is not helpful. Instead, the parent can listen to the child’s heart and say, “That does look like a great toy. I can see why you like it. We aren’t taking anything home today. Maybe you will want to choose this one the next time we are getting a new toy.” The limit can be delivered with loving empathy. And it can be repeated as many times as are needed to convince the child that we are serious. The parent can show that she takes the child’s preference seriously by saying, “Let’s write down the name of that toy. You can keep the note so you will remember which toy you wanted.”
Note that the child’s whining may also be an expression of boredom and tiredness. The compassionate response to boredom is to find something the child can do: “Would you keep track of the shopping list for me?” A compassionate response to tiredness might be to take a minute to hold the child, to get a snack, or to end the shopping trip as quickly as possible.
As we assist our children in making the journey toward becoming adults, limits must be set. Responsible behavior must be taught. But we can do it with kindness and compassion.
In order to effectively show compassion, we must set aside our own frustrations and irritations. We must desire to understand and have empathy for our child. This is not learned in a mini-class. It is one of the hardest things that humans ever do. It is the work of a lifetime.
John Gottman, the great psychologist, has described a process he calls emotion coaching. Rather than react to children’s strong feelings by being dismissive, disapproving, or dithering, we can teach them to understand and manage their feelings using five steps.
1. Be Aware of the Child’s Emotions.
Children have reasons for the way they feel. When their feelings don’t make sense to us, it means we don’t understand the children and what’s happening in their lives.
It is good to be aware of any special challenges our children have. When they are already hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, children are especially likely to have a hard time dealing with their feelings.
Remember, when children are in the midst of strong feelings, this is not a time to talk solutions. Healing must come first. Just like adults, children must be calm before they can think sensibly.
2. Recognize the Emotion as an Opportunity for Closeness and Teaching.
When a child is upset, we have a great opportunity both to be supportive and to teach him or her. Instead of wishing our children were never angry or sad, we can use these times to help them develop emotional intelligence. And their strong feelings are a great opportunity for us to teach them and draw close to them.
3. Listen with Empathy and Validate the Child’s Feelings.
Sometimes we worry that showing understanding seems to endorse a child’s thoughts and feelings. Actually, the opposite is true. Denying a child’s feelings intensifies them, while showing compassion helps the child manage them. As Gottman says, “Negative feelings dissipate when children can talk about their emotions, label them, and feel understood.”4 Effective emotion coaching helps children to better understand and manage their feelings.
4. Help the Child Label the Feeling.
When we use appropriate “feeling” words—like “frustrated,” “confused,” “lonely,” “overwhelmed,” “fearful,” etc.—children learn to better understand and talk about their feelings. Their emotional competence and vocabulary grow.
5. Set Limits on the Child’s Behavior while Helping Him or Her Solve the Problem.
We can understand children’s feelings while setting limits on their behavior. For example, when a child is angry with a classmate, we can say, “I can see why you are upset. But we never hit other people.”
Applying the Ideas
Emotion coaching is a way of showing compassion. It is difficult because we humans are wired to react based on our needs. It is a challenge that stretches us towards godliness to pause our own story and listen attentively to our children’s stories.
Here are two ideas to help you make the journey of compassion.
Think of a recent experience when you found it hard to show compassion for your child. Rewrite that scenario in your mind. How might you have offered emotional first aid? How might you have reacted differently during a time of trouble? How might you have listened to your child’s heart? Prepare your mind and heart to show more compassion towards your child or children this week.
I recommend that every parent read and reread one of the great books that teaches compassion. My personal favorites are Between Parent and Child by Haim Ginott, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman, and a book I wrote called The Soft-Spoken Parent.
Compassion does not come easily or naturally to humans, yet it undergirds and supports all parenting. Its vital role will become even clearer in the following chapters.
Reflection and Application
Have you set your mind and heart to support your children through normal mistakes and misdeeds? Have you prepared yourself to respond compassionately to their pain?
You can buy a copy of Bringing Up Our Children in Light and Truth at Deseret Book. Brother Goddard has written or edited other books that may interest you, including Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.