On Compassion Towards Our Children

“If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.” – Gandhi

Post written by Leo Babauta. Follow me on Twitter.

The other day I talked about how someone interested in Compassion should talk about compassion towards animals, a group of living beings that is often overlooked.

But just as important is a discussion of compassion towards our own children — people we love and don’t want to see suffer, and yet whose suffering we often cause.

I anticipate this topic will be even more controversial, because as parents we don’t want to think that we cause suffering in our beloved children. But we do (or at least, those of us who use mainstream parenting techniques usually do), and it should be brought out in the open.

I should note that I am among the perpetrators of non-compassionate behavior towards my own children, and I make no claims to perfection. I have recognized the problem, however, and I’m trying to change.

Teaching Compassion to Our Children
First: why is this issue so important? Because creating a more compassionate world requires that the next generation — our children — learn to be compassionate.

And how do we teach compassion to our children? By talking about it or making them read articles on Zen Habits? Well, that’s a good start, but even more important is that we model compassionate behavior — starting in the home. That means we need to be compassionate toward everyone in our homes, including our children.

Sounds great so far, right? But do we actually do this? If you’ve ever “disciplined” a child with a spanking, with a verbal berating, with a time out meant to teach the child a lesson, you’ve acted in a way that isn’t compassionate.

Let’s explore this a bit more.

Discipline Isn’t Compassionate
When a child gets angry, throws a tantrum, throws toys, hits another child, or cries loudly, parents often will use force to stop the child — sometimes this force is simply coercive language with threat of punishment, sometimes it’s picking a child up and putting him in time out, sometimes it’s actual violence through spanking or slapping or worse.

This is “discipline” and it’s meant to teach the child that what she’s doing is wrong. But what message is usually conveyed instead? That it is wrong when we get angry or upset, that our parents will treat us unkindly when we do, that obeying and conforming is more important than being kind and loving.

When a friend is angry or cries, we don’t slap the friend, or yell at him to shut up, or lock him in a room or force him to sit quietly on a couch. That would be considered not only rude behavior but offensive. What the friend needs is compassion, a gentle hug, a receptive ear, someone who understands and feels his pain and wants to end his suffering.

And yet when our children are upset, we often do the opposite: we do not listen or seek to understand or feel their pain or seek to end their suffering. In fact we cause more suffering. That’s not compassionate.

The Cause of Children’s Anger
Why does a child get upset or throw tantrums or have a crying fit? Often because she doesn’t get what she wants. A teen-ager develops a bad attitude and dysfunctional behavior often because he feels controlled, has no freedom, is stifled and smothered.

The cause of our children’s anger is often … us. We don’t give them the freedoms that normal humans deserve. We don’t believe they have the same right to what they want that we as adults do. We believe we know better (when we sometimes don’t) and so we control them.

But is this compassionate? If another adult told us that he knew better than us, would we like it if he controlled us? Would we like it that he didn’t give us freedoms or allow us to do what we wanted? Undoubtedly not.

In fact, this lack of respect, dignity, and freedom would cause us pain and suffering. Just as it does our children.

Instead of being compassionate, we are causing their suffering.

Compassionate Parenting
Fortunately, there is a better way. I’ve been reading a lot about a philosophy called Taking Children Seriously, and it is a radical break from traditional parenting. Just a note: be prepared to have your beliefs about parenting challenged if you read this site, but keep an open mind and be willing to change your mind.

TCS advocates non-coercive parenting — not forcing the child to do anything, but rather educating the child, guiding the child, helping the child, and trying to lead by persuasion rather than coercion.

It sounds good, but in reality it can be difficult for a traditional parent to accept the TCS way, as it means letting go of notions that a child must “listen” (or obey), that we must teach the child certain lessons and the means justifies this end, that education is rightly done through (coercive) schools, that our way is the right way.

While TCS is not a methodology, one of the fundamental concepts that is put into practice by TCS parents is that of finding a “common preference” rather than either the parent getting her way or the child getting his way. If either of those happens, the other “loses”, which means that either the child or the parent gets hurt.

TCS advocates neither person getting hurt — everyone should win. You do that by considering alternatives until you find an option that both parties are happy with. This is actually consistent with my theory of life — I don’t think we should hurt each other and should find ways to work things out so that everyone is happy whenever possible.

“Children are great imitators. So give them something great to imitate.” – anonymous

But What About When …
So what do you do if a child is crying or throwing a tantrum and won’t listen to reasoning? You find compassion for the child — you give her a hug, listen to her if she wants to talk about it, help her get what she wants.

That’s compassionate parenting. And this kind of compassion — feeling the suffering of your child and helping him end the suffering — is the model that our children need to learn compassion towards others. And if they grow up to be compassionate, our world is a better place.

There are many other situations parents will have questions about when it comes to this style of parenting, and I won’t be able to answer them all. I suggest you check out the dozens of articles on the TCS website, read their discussion boards and mailing list, and check out a few of the blogs of TCS parents and advocates. They can explain it all much better than I can.

As for me, I am new to compassionate parenting. I have always had compassion for my children, of course, but I was also raised in a traditional authoritarian style and that’s what I’m used to. It’s hard to change. But I think it is important if I want a more compassionate world.

Once I’ve started with myself and how I treat my children, I can expand from there and show them how to be compassionate towards others in our community, and around the world. But it must start somewhere, and I think with our children is a wonderful place to start.

“A person’s a person, no matter how small.” – Dr. Seuss

Some articles and books for further reading: