This is Part 4 of Bringing Up Our Children in Light and Truth. To read previous excerpts, click here.
Our own spiritual well-being—our relationship with God—forms the footings on which all our parenting structure rests. God is the rock on whom we build.
The next part of our structure is the foundation that supports the entire building while resting on the rock of our Redeemer. I think of the foundation as compassion, which is defined as “a feeling of distress and pity for the suffering or misfortune of another, often including the desire to alleviate it” (www.thefreedictionary.com).
We often think we understand the idea of compassion and show it pretty well. After all, we feel sad when our children suffer—especially when they suffer innocently. Yet we generally underestimate all that compassion entails.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, this powerful word was used to describe the Samaritan’s first reaction to the injured person: “When he saw him, he had compassion on him” (Luke 10:33). The Samaritan was unlike the priest and the Levite, who ignored the traveler’s injuries and suffering. Even though it would cost him dearly, the Samaritan chose to embrace the injured man. He “went to him, and bound up his wounds” (v. 34).
Commenting on this great parable, John Welch discussed the word “compassion”: “This Greek word is used elsewhere in the New Testament only in sentences that describe God’s or Christ’s emotions of mercy. As is well recognized, ‘outside the original parables of Jesus there is no instance of the word being used of men’ (Helmut Koster in Gerhard Friedrich, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols., trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971], 7:553).”2
Brother Welch points out that the word is a “distinctive theological marker” pointing us to God’s love or divine compassion. In other words, compassion is not your run-of-the-mill pity. It is not even human understanding. It is the divine gift of feeling what another person feels even though we do not have his or her life experience. It is being touched by another person’s infirmity (see Hebrews 4:15–16). It is the willingness to personally sacrifice in order to bring healing to someone we love.
The perfect example of compassion is Jesus Christ. In Alma 7 we are taught that He not only bore the terrible burden of sin and death—a burden that would destroy any of us—but He went the second mile. He bore our pains, disappointments, and routine infirmities so He would fully understand every pain we will ever suffer. We can never rightly say to Him that He doesn’t understand us and our pains. He paid a terrible price so that He does understand everything we experience. So, while being profoundly unlike us in His personal sinlessness, He is perfectly like us because He bore our sins and our routine pains.
The Path to Compassion
Clearly, we should not be glib about the challenge of showing compassion. We simply are not capable of true compassion without heavenly help. Only when we have the mind and heart of Christ can we truly show compassion.
One of the great ironies of parenting is that compassion may be hardest to show to those we know best. Over time we build images and expectations for people we know. We start to think we understand their motives, preferences, strengths, and weaknesses. But we rarely realize that we see through a glass darkly. We see only a blurry likeness of a person. Our own biases and needs block our understanding of that person’s heart.
Let’s test this idea. Did you feel that your parents fully understood and appreciated your heart? Or were misunderstandings and misjudgments common? For some reason we all tend to think we will do much better than our own parents. That pride—for pride it is—prevents us from seeing any better than they did. We may have biases different from our parents but we, like they, still see through a glass darkly. The remedy for bias and pride is humility: the whole-souled recognition that we do not fully comprehend someone else’s life. Only as we stop imposing our meanings on other people’s experiences can we be open to their meanings. Only as we listen much better than we normally do can we really hear the cries of another heart. Only as we open our souls to another person can we truly value that person’s life.
In my opinion, we can never experience true compassion for another person unless we allow God to open our minds and hearts to that person. This requires great humility and profound faith in Jesus Christ. Compassion is far more than a skill; it is a quality of heart. Have you ever felt an overwhelming sense of love and concern for someone who had once irritated you? Have you ever wanted to lift and rescue an enemy? These are fruits of compassion.
Looking into the Face of Compassion
The natural man is an enemy to compassion and everything godly. By “natural man” I don’t mean the rotten, stinking worst of us; I mean the typical person—those of us not perfected by Christ. “Because of the fall our natures have become evil continually” (Ether 3:2). The common parent who runs on autopilot is an enemy to children. One good example of this is told by the brilliant psychologist, Haim Ginott.
Daniel, age thirteen, went with his father to a gallery of abstract art.
Daniel: These pictures don’t make any sense.
Father: What do you know about art? Have you read any books on the subject? You would do well to get an education before you express an opinion.
Daniel gave Father a deadly look and said: “I still think the pictures stink.”
This conversation did not increase Daniel’s appreciation for art or his love for his father. Daniel felt insulted, hurt, and revengeful. He will look for an opportunity to get back at his father. From the mouths of our children come words we should never have said.3
When we correct without persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love (see Doctrine and Covenants 121:41), we do not enrich and educate people; we enrage them. The devil laughs and families suffer. Ginott provided another example of an unnecessary war:
Kyle, age sixteen, is interested in political science. He likes to talk about strange countries and foreign nations. His facts are not always accurate and his opinions are often overstated.
Kyle: China will soon be the strongest nation in the world. Now is the time to declare war on China.
Father: Look at my sixteen-year-old military genius! What do you know about such complex problems? You talk like an idiot. Let me tell you a few things about China.
Kyle (in anger): No thanks, Dad.
Father: What’s the matter? The argument getting too hot for you? Well, if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.
Hurt and angry, Kyle left the living room, while Father went on lecturing to his wife on how to bring peace to the world. Father’s sermon on peace resulted in a new war at home. His talk with his son did not create greater love or respect in the family. Kyle did not learn anything about peace, or politics. He did learn to resent his father, and to keep his ideas to himself.4
Was the battle necessary? Perhaps not. It is never wise to try to convince our teenagers that they are stupid and that their ideas are idiotic. The real danger is that they may believe us. Applying the rule of not disputing a teenager’s opinions, his father could have said: “I am interested in your ideas about war and peace. Tell me more about them.” Then Father could have repeated the gist of this son’s views to indicate that he had listened and understood. Then, and only then, he would state his own views: “I see we differ in our opinion on China. This is my view . . .” In an argument, the key to dialogue is the willingness to summarize the other person’s view, before stating one’s own.4
The Natural Commentator
As parents we may vacillate between more and less compassionate ways of relating to our children. Most of us are not unfailingly compassionate. At times we are tender, open and kind. At other times we are irritable, demanding, and closed-minded.
Sometimes we can unwittingly relate to our children the way a basketball commentator relates to players in a broadcast game. From a comfortable press box, the commentator makes a stream of observations. When the commentator thinks a player isn’t performing well or living up to expectations, the observations can include judgments, complaints, accusations, and ultimately a negative evaluation of the prospects of a struggling player. He may even make fun of a player who is having a bad day. The commentator makes his calls without considering the well-being of the players. When we are far from the action, we don’t feel the pain, struggle, and earnestness of those in the middle of the game.
Yet, once upon a time, we parents were the players. Our parents and others were the commentators. We did the best we knew how but struggled with inexperience, fatigue, lack of strategy, and lack of teamwork. Sometimes we were also dispirited by the judgments of the people in the press box.
Better a Coach than a Commentator
It is much more compassionate and effective to be a coach rather than a commentator. Admittedly, some coaches can be harsh and insulting. That is not what I recommend. I recommend a coach who is close enough to the players to see the sweat, sense the struggle, understand the pain; a coach who knows his players’ strengths and shows them how to use them; the kind of coach who puts his arms around tired players and reminds them why they are there; a coach who provides aid to the weak, holds up the hands that hang down, and strengthens the feeble knees (see Doctrine and Covenants 81:5) with compassionate words of encouragement, hope, vision, and love.
The closer we are to the players and the more we humbly remember their struggle, the more we can be helpful to them. A coach cares deeply about the success of his players.
The Human Face of Compassion
Some years ago a Jewish immigrant to America wrote about replacing hardness with softness in parenting. This one-time-schoolteacher-turned-child-psychologist was Haim Ginott, and he taught us about compassion in parenting. I recommend that everyone read his still-acclaimed book, Between Parent and Child. (Disclosure: I helped revise this great book.)
I adapt the following story from Ginott: On his first visit to kindergarten, while mother was still with him, Bruce, age five, looked over the paintings on the wall and asked loudly, “Who made these ugly pictures?”
Mother was embarrassed. She looked at her son disapprovingly, and hastened to tell him, “It’s not nice to call the pictures ugly when they are so pretty.”
The teacher, who understood the meaning of the question, smiled and said, “In here you don’t have to paint pretty pictures. You can paint mean pictures if you feel like it.” A big smile appeared on Bruce’s face, for now he had the answer to his hidden question: “What happens to a boy who doesn’t paint so well?”5
Contrast this gentle, compassionate approach with those described earlier in which Daniel commented on modern art and Kyle planned foreign policy. Unhelpful responses humiliated; Bruce’s teacher educated. That is the difference that compassion makes.
Jesus counsels us to agree with our adversaries quickly (Matthew 5:25; 3 Nephi 12:25). Rather than being quick to correct, we can find common ground, show compassion, and thus strengthen the bonds that unite us.
As the beginning of this chapter suggests, compassion rests on our relationship with God. When we are close to God and filled with His Spirit, compassion comes naturally. Unfortunately this is not a very stable state. We may start the day feeling grounded in God, but the barrage of life events conspire to undermine serenity. Still, the more profoundly and regularly we connect with God, the more effortlessly we will show compassion.
The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs. My talk is intended for all this society; if you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another.”6
In the next two articles, I will discuss four kinds of understanding that are vital for cultivating the kind of parental compassion that helps children become balanced adults. I will suggest things each of us can do and ways we can think that make a positive difference.
Reflection and Application
Are you willing to watch for pain in your children’s faces and be a healer and comforter to them in their difficulties?
What pain have you seen recently in their lives? How can you minister with compassion?
You can buy a copy of Bringing Up Our Children in Light and Truth at Deseret Book. Brother Goddard has written or edited many other books that may interest you, such as The Soft-Spoken Parent, Between Parent and Child, or Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.