Trying to Teach Compassion -- by Laura Houston
I am taking a break from teaching my boys the ABCs and their 123s. I have noticed that here in Manhattan where pressure is high for kids and parents to test into a good kindergarten that a more important lesson is being left out. Parents have forgotten to teach their kids compassion. I see it on the playground every day, and I don’t want to see it in my sons. Ever.
So I have started to make some changes. I am working on curbing my sense of humor, which leans to the side of teasing. Most of the time the boys laugh when I tease them, but sometimes I cross the line. For instance, when my boys try to climb on the TV set, I would squirt them with water. They would laugh and try harder to get at the remote. We’d all end up in giggles. Then one time I squirted Lyle without thinking, and I did it in front of friends. One of them said, “That was mean.” I was so shocked I had done such a thing I could not respond or explain it used to be a game.
It’s certainly not a game any more. Not just because I shamed myself in front of friends, but because I am well aware my sons could very well take this sort of teasing to the playground. It’s the sort of teasing that starts out fun for everyone but ends up with the person on the other end of it crying. It then becomes a power play, and it’s dangerous.
I have also stopped barking out behavioral commands. At the park I am usually a mad woman, trying to watch both of my active toddlers who systematically choose to play at opposite ends of the playground. This is not effective parenting, so I have tempered the barking. Lyle has trouble taking turns, so I now pull him from the slide or the fountain, and get down on his level, and calmly explain to him the importance of taking turns. He is not responding to my request to share, but he is listening.
One of the best lessons my parents taught me as a girl was the Golden Rule. I remember my mother sitting me down and telling me to play it out on the other person’s side. She would ask me how it felt if someone had done that to me, and she made me tell her how it would feel so I could walk in that person’s shoes. I think this is the most indispensable advice my mother ever gave me.
The Golden Rule, along with the rule that everything you do in life comes back to you, is being taught in my house now. The boys are not talking, but they are hearing me and getting the concept. When Lyle shoved his brother off the couch, I pulled him to me and explained to him how mean that was. I asked him if he understood why it was mean, and he said, “yes.” Then I asked him to repeat to me why it was mean, and he babbled off an explanation. I doubt he even knew what he said, but the thought process begins.
I am also trying to decide how to handle timeouts right now. I rarely have to give one to Wyatt, but one day when he was particularly cranky he asked me for one, so I put him in his crib with some books, and he had quiet time for almost an hour. He came back to the living room happy and calm. I have given Lyle timeouts for bad behavior, and it usually calms him, but it has little effect yet on changing his behavior. I’m concerned about timeouts because social alienation can increase bullying, and I am concerned how to find a balance. I have to think about this for a while to decide how to best handle punishments.
I used to believe that kids were born with compassion, and some of them lost it over time as they became wounded or mistreated. But now I know differently. It has to be taught, and Dave and I have to do it.
Last week in school a new girl with a speech impediment became overly shy at snack time, and she fled to the corner, curled up in a ball, and cried softly. Lyle left his snack, went over to her, put his face close to hers, and patted her back while babbling softly to her. The girl’s mom was impressed.
I was, too. But I also knew that in about 20 minutes Lyle would shove her, steal her toy, and go running off with it. And sure enough that’s what happened. But Lyle is good at apologizing, and he did after another one of our talks. It makes me wonder, does he get it? At all? His polar behavior baffles me sometimes.
Then there’s Wyatt. Wyatt rarely does anything to anyone. He’s a lone ranger – an easy kid to raise. But recently he has started laughing when someone falls or trips. It’s odd because he falls so much. The kid hasn’t had clean knees since summer began. The other day Lyle fell off a toy he was standing on, and Wyatt laughed hysterically. It was all I could do not to laugh at Wyatt’s laugh. I don’t want to encourage the guy. He has a contagious sense of humor.
So I have a little list of things to do to promote compassion. I need to give more hugs and practice forgiveness after an act has been punished. I need to spend more time on their level explaining things to them in a calm, matter-of-fact voice. The words I need to say as often as possible: be nice, play nice. Sometimes I can hear Wyatt chanting these as he tries to cross the busy playground. I have to believe it’s sinking in on some level.