Developing compassion and empathy is critical for developing quality relationships with young children. When we are able to put ourselves in another’s shoes, we understand them better and are more able to validate their emotions.
When I think that most adults treat children the way they were treated, I can’t help but wonder how adults develop compassion themselves. What if they never had the opportunity to practice being empathetic when they were young, or if they hadn’t experienced others being empathetic toward them? In my latest book, “Everyone Needs Attention: Helping Young Children Thrive,” I write about self-research.
In my first book about understanding our biases, I termed this kind of self-reflection as a way of confronting our discomfort. As we have started taking an in-depth look at systemic racism as a nation, I believe that we cannot rid ourselves of it unless we accompany our efforts with self-reflection, specifically about how we acquired our biases as young children. This can be uncomfortable — even deeply painful.
Recently, I have been asking myself if I can be more compassionate with myself in order to have compassion for others. This makes me think about the critical voices from my childhood that I developed in my brain when I was growing up. I realize that these early voices from significant adults in my life have stayed with me – even at age 71.
Becoming aware of how I talk to me about me in my head is half the battle toward becoming more compassionate with myself. This is different from narcissism or self-praise; it’s about learning to accept my flaws as part of being human.
The Difficulty With Making Mental Left Turns
Our minds were set a long time ago by adults, who taught us a way of perceiving the world mostly through their eyes. Our survival in our family systems depended on doing the right things, so that people we cared about would like us. Adults around us taught us what was safe or dangerous through their praise, admonishments and even silence. I learned to understand reality mostly through my mother’s view of me, but also through my own repeated patterns of behavior that reinforced my emotional life script.
Rewriting my script is not always easy. It is not like surgery, in which we replace our old beliefs with new values like we do with knee or hip replacements. Change takes time. Some of us welcome it with all its challenges and struggles. Others feel anxious and resistant — even fearful or resentful. All these different feelings are natural if we decide to change our mindset.
It has always been a struggle to unlearn prejudices I acquired in early childhood. For example, I met an American Peace Corps teacher and invited him to stay with us for a while as he passed through Rhodesia. He was on his way to work in Botswana, a neighboring country.
One day, he and I gave a ride to a young Black African woman who was working at a friend’s home. He jumped out and opened the front door of the car for the woman to enter. As he did that, I remember feeling amazed and ashamed both at the same time; I realized that I had learned all Black African people were expected to sit at the back of the car. His behavior showed me that it was natural and polite to offer a guest the front seat of the car no matter who they are or the color of their skin.
Self-compassion helps me become intentionally aware of why I do what I do. If I find myself cautioning children who try to do something challenging, it likely has something to do with how I wasn’t trusted to do things when I was a child. This way, I become more aware of how or why I blurt out things to children, and I am able to choose different responses that are more helpful or appropriate for their development.
Feelings are complex, arising when least expected. If I am able to validate or acknowledge them, perhaps I would become more inclined to accept a child’s feelings as well.
Adults seem to unconsciously repeat what was done to or for them when they were children. When we learn to validate our own feelings, we will be more inclined to accept those of others. And when we learn that our flaws are what makes us human, we will be able to transfer this compassion and empathy toward others.