Why Compassion? Print
Written by Pam Cayton   


Why nurture compassion and empathetic behaviors in our children? Quite simply, underlying every moment from the time of conception to the present moment, everyone, wants to be safe, to be loved, to feel good… in essence to be happy…and compassion feels good. In fact compassion has been found to be the most reliable predictor of genuine happiness. This is where neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and ancient contemplative traditions are intersecting.

To quote one of the great expounders of the importance of compassion, the Dalai Lama, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

The Dalai Lama often uses the example of a mother’s love as being the seed of compassion. Since conception our very life and survival depends upon the kindness of our mother. That initial bond between the mother and child causes the ‘feel good’ hormone, oxytocin to release into the blood stream. This is the body’s natural response to deep connection, caring, warm smiles and friendly interactions. The release of oxytocin feels good and naturally motivates us to be even more compassionate.

Interestingly Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man, wrote that sympathy is our strongest instinct, sometimes stronger than self-interest, arguing that “the most sympathetic members, would flourish best“.

Compassion is beneficial for us, mentally, emotionally and physically but also for the very survival of the planet. So if compassion is indeed a source for genuine, more sustainable happiness and wellbeing, why aren’t we consistently motivated by a more altruistic attitude?

It seems our pursuit for happiness more commonly focuses on acquiring objects of desire or experiencing momentary pleasures of reputation or material gains. This preoccupation with our own self-interests seems more the norm and this ‘me-focused’ attitude lends itself to constant disappointment for children and adults alike. Desire driven endeavors usually offer only momentary pleasure and also cannot be relied upon for fulfilling our desires but rather present us with on-going challenges. To use a simple example: We parents all remember that experience in the super market when our child’s demands are not met and we find ourselves rushing out the door without our groceries. There are countless examples of disappointment and challenges that are created through raising our children to think primarily of their own immediate happiness.

The societies and cultures we are raised in contribute to our sense of self and life’s purpose. As bio-ecological research psychologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, taught, all spheres of our society influence the development of the child to varying degrees. The world we are raising our children in has a powerful influence on our idea of what will bring happiness. If we look at our society, advertising and consumerism has a very developed approach to influencing our beliefs on where we find the happiness we seek. However, Bronfenbrenner’s research gives hope by revealing that the most important sphere of influence is the family, primary caregiver, and school. This supports the findings based on further development of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth’s research of ‘secure attachment’, that children who are more securely attached to their parents tend to be more sympathetic to their peers. Pearl and Samuel Oliner research found that children who have more compassionate parents tend to be more altruistic, so modeling the behavior is a powerful teacher!

Furthermore, research psychologists have found that parents who use induction and reasoning to guide their children to think about the consequences of their actions, raise children who are more likely to help others. Children love logic and research shows that they have metacognition from the age of about 2 years old. This means they can think about thought, so from a very young age children can think about the “whys” and “why nots” of behavior. This kind of critical thinking has been found to nurture the basic tools of compassion: an appreciation of others’ suffering and a desire to remedy that suffering.

A powerful foundation for developing empathy and compassion is an inquiry-based approach, to understanding the interconnected nature of all things. Children can easily follow logic to explore production of their food, their clothes, and following this exploration they will discover that there is nothing that exists in an isolated way. Everything is connected, including their very body, breath and life itself. This provides a foundation for empathy, gratitude and compassion. To quote Albert Einstein,

 “A human being... experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”




Last Updated on Wednesday, 31 January 2018 23:13