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Carter Harkins

Chief Storyteller, Harkins Creative

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How Do We Teach Children Compassion and Empathy?

Joan proposes that if compassion is so good for us, why don't we teach it to our children? But how is this done? What are your ideas? What has worked in your experience?


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    • Sep 5 2011: Birdia,

      I'll start off with this quote: "We must view young people not as empty bottles to be filled, but as candles to be lit." -Robert H. Shaffer

      The idea of education is to empower children, to ignite their lights and show them that while interests are fantastic, some of them may be, in fact, fantasy. While I do not doubt the power of fantasy, I believe that reality is our ultimate blessing. Therein lies the sparks for children. I agree with you. Children don't sit around waiting to be taught something. This is because we can't view them in that way. Teaching is empowerment, motivation, not fact-filling. Adults can be taught (empowerment) and children can be taught (empowerment). When has age ever changed the capacity for knowledge?

      The reason for a curriculum is to show our children the knowledge they need to know to make change in this world. Or to do whatever it is they want to do. Compassion and empathy is just another one of these things. If we empower these kids in compassion and empower them in empathy, their possibilities can become infinite. Who wouldn't want children compassionate and empathetic.

      These are not boring 'adult' ideas that operate in the 'adult' world and are useless to children. They can use compassion and empathy every day. This is what I believe in nonetheless.

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      Sep 6 2011: Birdia,
      Judging from your comments, it seems likely that you are not a parent yourself, because if you were, you would not likely have said the things you did. As parents, we DO teach our children things every day! And if we are good at parenting, we know how to make learning fun and interesting for them. But regardless of whether learning those lessons are 'fun and interesting' or not, or whether they are 'interested' in particular lessons or not, it is still our DUTY as their parents to teach them certain things! And as far as your comment, "The act of 'Teaching' is fun for the adults but it is probably not the best method to encourage children to learn anything" goes, there are countless 'methods' of teaching, and the good ones DO encourage children to learn and DO make learning interesting and fun. And furthermore, I hardly think that teaching children about compassion and empathy is 'selfish and inconsiderate' just because 'we adults' want to instill those virtues in our children. They will be better citizens because of those lessons learned, and very likely will appreciate the fact that their parents cared enough about them to teach them about those things!
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          Sep 25 2011: You are fortunate and, more importantly, generous.
          Your FYI fulfilled a statement I published: "My parents were great, lower-middle class Americans and I am grateful. However, I wish they had merely practiced their goodness and not indoctrinated me in Southern Baptist interpretation of the Bible.” Since then my wish would exclude any religion.
          Then you write: "To be honest, I can . . . “, followed by "it's simply maddening." Your writing is lucid.
          I have a request: I am concerned that some contributors equivocate “empathy” with “compassion” and ignore “intolerance.” Please comment on the elements of this compound statement: "Adults should be intolerant toward force in all its forms and make certain their own actions are empathetic, reserving compassion for people who need help to establish personal independence. With such leadership, children could discover personal preferences during their lives.”
    • Sep 6 2011: How can compassion be considered as a grown-up's selfish value to be passed on? Did you not watch the video? Whether you do have children or not, please read what others are writing, about learning by example. Also, sometimes it is a small talk, a good opportunity to teach and help arises perhaps, like when a child hurts another one, unjustly, in front of you; this is a perfect time to help your child to process what was observed, and to listen, it isn't selfish at all. It is preparing them for our world, and they ARE our future. Peace.
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        • Sep 18 2011: Birdie you are so right on but most people donot understand your depth.
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      Sep 7 2011: Birdia,

      While it's true to that children tend to resist being told, there is good evidence that children learn even when they don't think they are or are actively seeking lessons. Research on adult learning suggests they are even more resistant than children to learning (many adults feel they know all and/or are experts) and, in fact, that ability to learn or not is less a factor than motivation.

      Curiosity is a gift children have -- which your family seems to value more than some -- that some adults don't, which gives them an edge, learning-wise.

      There is also good evidence that empathy is biologically natural. Research on children indicates they will instinctively show concern and/or comfort for another if they are aware they are in pain. Notably, this reaction seems more evident in one-on-one or small group settings, not bigger groups.

      In community, social contagion factors kick in, which explains why in many cases, neither children or adults will intervene with bullies -- even if they internally wish they could or would.

      It seems culture can and often does dilute this instinct out of the cognitive reaction realms, though it remains in sub-conscious. Why, in reflection people might have empathy for another, but in the moment don't sense others pain as clearly as children do. In other words, we learn to dull our senses to one another. In part because feeling their pain, fear, or reality can trigger our feelings of the same.

      Children have fewer filters--and are "closer" to their sense of vulnerability, which can allow them to access "purer" feelings, including empathy. And, I think childhood is a wonderful time to "allow" children to act with compassion.

      One wishes we adults would similarly "allow" ourselves to empathize with our vulnerabilities, so we, too could act with more compassion.

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      Sep 29 2011: Birdia, you are so right! When I read the question I found the part of "teaching" troublesome. "Instill", "encourage", "expose them to" are better choices of words.
      But let's not judge, we are all learning to free ourselves of old boundaries; most of us did not have the privilege of growing up in a perfectly evolved, forward thinking, always right family. Again, we are learning, specially learning to shake off the stigmas that the "educational" years left on us. Including our choice of words :-)

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