The Way of Compassion

Empathy on the Playground — and Beyond

By February 25, 2011 3 Comments

I really did grow up analyzing my dreams with my mom at the breakfast table, over oatmeal. She’d take out a yellow pad and we’d sit at the kitchen table diagramming the dreams, talking about different archetypes from Jungian psychology.
I was taught that our dreams reflect what’s happening in our unconscious emotional lives, and by understanding them, we gain a kind of roadmap for navigating our conscious lives.
And if I came home from school complaining about some boy saying mean things to me on the playground, she wouldn’t say, “That’s not right. He shouldn’t do that! ” She wouldn’t say, “Did you stand up to him?” She wouldn’t say, “Do you want me to call the teacher?” She would say, “Now Tara, what do you think is going on for Johnny at home that would cause him to do that?”
Yup. That’s how I grew up.
My mom wasn’t a therapist. She had an undergraduate degree in psychology, and a passion for it. Books about psychology and spirituality from all religions lined the bookshelves in the house. I grew up reading them.
Combine all this with being an only child, born to parents who were about forty when they had their first child, and you got a kid that wasn’t exactly the typical…kid. A kind of kid-grownup, we might say.
Sometimes, all the stuff I was raised with could feel isolating, because I was looking at things differently than the other kids. But mostly, the way I was raised gave me the tremendous gift of empathy, the tool of being able to understand others, to always see, with compassion, why they were doing what they were doing.
What strikes me most about this upbringing is how many conventional notions of what “kids can understand” my parents defied.
I know many parents who think that their grade school kids wouldn’t be able to digest or benefit from the question “What do you think is going on for Johnny at home that would make him do that?” I think they are underestimating their kids.
We can raise really enlightened kids — kids with capacity for empathy, with wisdom — if we point them in that direction. It’s up to the adults to not model blame or enemy-making, but instead explore with them how everyone is doing what they are doing for their own emotional and psychological reasons. It’s possible to teach kids that when people can do better, they will do better — if for no other reason than to relieve themselves of the suffering that comes with anger, with aggression, with harming others.
When kids are taught this, they gain real emotional safety. This weekend, at a meditation retreat I attended with Sharon Salzberg, Sharon kept speaking about strength. How we have to look at the things that we think give us strength, that we think make us strong and examine: how strong are they really? How strong is anger really? How strong does it make us? How strong is hatred really? Do those things actually strengthen us, or do they weaken us? And what, in your experience —Sharon asked us to consider — really is strong? What is durable, reliable, always there for us?
My own experience is that strength is found through compassion and empathy — not aggression and might. From a place of empathy, I can see the truth that there are no bad guys, no enemies, no monsters under the bed. There are only people in pain and illusion acting out of that pain and illusion — in ways that harm others and themselves.
When we — (kids, adults, anyone) start believing there are “bad people”, we act in a way that creates more separation, delusion, and violence in the world. We go off on lots of futile efforts, seeking to defend ourselves in ways that don’t really protect us from harm.
Worst of all, when we see others as “bad” or “mean” or “immoral” or whatever it may be, we start reassuring ourselves that we aren’t like the “bad people.” We try to convince ourselves we are the “good people.” We do that by denying our own greed, fear, harmfulness — the very stuff inside of us that we need to be looking at, that we need to be willing to examine and get to know — so we can work with it.
What role does empathy and compassion play in your life? And what do you think about how we can raise emotionally aware, spiritually-connected kids?

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • What wonderful questions. Thank you, Tara.

    The first time I recognized that I was needing to lean into empathy with my own daughter occurred when she was 5-ish and I was in coach training. She was in an inconsolable rage b/c my husband was making her brush her teeth (oh the cruelty). Under normal, pressed, circumstances, I’d have felt my own rage bubble up, hurried them on with the teeth brushing, and scolded them BOTH (??) for not finding a way to get along. Instead, I took my daughter into another room and I got really, REALLY curious about what was going on in her body. Not WHY she was mad, but had her really noticing the impact of what she was feeling. No judgment, just empathy. Before long, she recognized that she could dial it up or down as she chose. I think what was truly marvellous about that moment occurred when she realized she wasn’t in “trouble” but was rather at choice. She chose to calm down, hug me, then go and thank her father for caring about her teeth.

    Hadn’t thought about that in a while. Thank you for the reminder.

  • Kim says:

    Thank you, Tara. This is such an important topic and wow, what great lessons you had from your Mom. When I heard the Dalai Lama speak, he really emphasized how important it was for children to experience compassion from their parents and others from birth.

    I have a friend who teaches her kids (and herself) to “give it a 180” when they are upset with someone. They have to brainstorm all the possible reasons why someone might behave the way they do; not to rationalize the behavior but to come to some kind of understanding of it.

  • Very good post.

    We can get a comparatively peaceful society if we teach our kids to love all whoever s/he may be.

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