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How Children Teach and Learn Compassion

By Sarah Liebetrau - 26th October 2011

The past couple of weeks have been very stressful for me. A close family member has been ill, and the whole family has been thrown into disarray. When things are hard it’s easy to become irritable due to sleep deprivation, anxiety and sadness. It can be hard to maintain good judgement and even-temperedness. I felt angry at the unfairness in the world and felt my hackles rising when I heard any-one whinge about having been stuck in traffic or unable to find a parking spot. Thankfully I was able to keep my cool with my children and actually enjoyed doing simple things with them such as reading stories as a kind of stress-release. Being with them also reminded me of the good fortune in my life.

I also wondered, when it came to my children, how much information it was appropriate to give them about what was going on in the extended family. I didn’t want to keep anything from them but I also didn’t want to burden them unnecessarily. I want them to grow into compassionate people but I don’t want them to carry the worries of the world on their shoulders. I explained to the children about their relative being sick, and that sometimes it made me feel sad. They drew some pictures for me to take to the hospital.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines compassion as ‘sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it’. Wikipedia notes that it is considered one of the most important virtues by many philosophical and religious schools of thought. Personally I believe that when times are tough, it is compassion, rather than love, that is needed most. I had to dig deep to find compassion for the way that other people in my family were dealing with this crisis, rather than judge them or become angry. Rather than see their faults on display I tried to choose to listen and just be there.

It didn’t always work of course. At times I would snap at my bewildered husband, be a bit short with the kids, and show my irritation with other people’s coping mechanisms. Then I realised that being compassionate towards myself was also important. A few nights ago, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by a simple decision about what to eat. I couldn’t think, so I walked into the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed. Spontaneously, I lay back on the bed so that my legs were dangling over the edge. I just felt the need to be still.

My 5-year-old son came into the room and asked me to switch the television to a recorded program he wanted to watch. I told him I just wanted to lie down for a while and I would do it soon. He said okay, gave me a hug and left the room. He then came back in with two small blankets (they must have been all he could find) and put one over my body and one over my legs. He produced a teddy bear and lay it next to me for company. He got a pillow and put it under my head, then he asked gently, “Do you want the light off?” I said yes please and he switched the light off and closed the door. I heard my daughter coming to investigate, and he told her, “Go and ask Dad please, Mummy’s having a little rest.”

I realised in that moment that sometimes my children have as much to teach me about compassion as I have to teach them.

image freedigitalphotos.net

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