Parents want to raise compassionate, caring children who are prepared for the variety of challenges they will face, who are sensitive to the needs of others, and who know what empathy is and how to express it. The question is: How do we do that?
According to Shauna Tominey, PhD, who specializes in parenting education, it happens in the small, seemingly insignificant conversations we have with our children.
She writes, “Teaching compassion (and related skills like self-awareness, empathy and resilience) begins early and comes from feelings of trust.”
In her new book, Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations to Have with Young Children, Tominey weaves insights from emotional development, resilience, and parent-child relationships into a practical application for how to teach and foster compassion in children.
At the heart of parenting is a desire to keep our children safe, to protect them from stress, worry, fear and violence.
However, in doing this, most parents miss a critical opportunity to teach children how to cope with challenges. Tominey writes, “We may be teaching our children that they can’t trust us to tell them the truth about challenging topics, or that we don’t trust them with this information.”
Instead, conversations can be used to model compassion, to teach children to value themselves and the world around them, to help children practice the skills they needs to face challenges, and to encourage children to reach beyond themselves.
When parents convey the message to their children that they are loved and will be loved for who they become, parents lay the groundwork for secure attachment.
“Children with secure attachments tend to have higher self-esteem, stronger critical thinking skills and better academic outcomes than children who don’t,” writes Tominey.
One key difference Tominey highlights is in how we discipline our children. Parents who employ a punitive approach, such as spanking or harsh words, use power in place of connection.
She writes, “Punitive approaches work by making children feel afraid or by inducing shame.”
Alternatively, when parents use a conversational approach, trust is built between parents and their children as children learn that their needs and feelings matter. Moreover, they learn how to cope with challenges.
As children have their own unique temperaments, strengths and challenges, responding to them without judgement helps them learn self-awareness, and eventually, to treat others as they would like to be treated.
On the subject of how to respond when someone makes fun of your child, Tominey suggests first responding to your child’s emotional experience, reassuring them that the words are not true, and then talking to them about why people may say hurtful words.
Similarly, developing resilience begins with protective factors, such as warm and responsive parenting, having secure and trusting relationships with an adult, being able to manage intense emotions and cope with stress, and being able to create lasting friendships and a network of support.
Tominey writes, “One of the benefits of introducing challenging topics to children at young ages is having the opportunity to shape the way your child is exposed to a topic rather than relying on a friend at school or the news to inform your child.”
Some helpful tips Tominey suggests are: start with conversations that are meaningful to your children; learn what they already know; share your feelings; help your child practice skills to cope with the issue now and in the future; and reassure children that they are safe while also focusing on what you can do together to be a helper for others.
Differentiating between positive, tolerable and toxic stress is also important to help children navigate challenges. While positive stress can inspire psychological growth, tolerable stress can be mitigated by supportive and loving relationships. Toxic stress, however, occurs when children do not have warm and trusting relationships.
When children do experience stress, Tominey’s suggestion is to “use those situations as learning opportunities.”
Extending compassion to others and looking for opportunities to connect with the community, the world around them and the needs of others, is another important way for parents to teach and model compassion for their children.
Learning kindness, however, begins at home. Tominey writes, “Children learn how to interact with others from the relationships they know. The relationships parents have with their children show them how to treat others and teach them how they can or should expect to be treated.”
Preparing children for the world they will face may seem overwhelming for many parents. Yet, through the conversations they have, the way they respond to their children and the world around them, parents have a lot more power than they might imagine.
With numerous examples of everyday conversations, Creating Compassionate Kids demystifies the process and shows parents just how to use their conversations to instill essential messages for their children. The result is not only more compassionate kids, but likely more compassionate parents.
Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations to Have with Young Children
W.W. Norton & Company, January 2019
Paperback, 260 pages