Why It is Important to Raise Compassionate Children


Why It is Important to Raise Compassionate Children

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

I am sipping a cup of tea and watching children play in the makeshift park below. Lately I’ve taken to doing this – observing children – quite a lot. I find them to be interesting subjects who have not yet been carved into people of the world, filled with potential, and germinating with their own ideas while absorbing those hurled at them.

There’s a group huddled together with a tall girl dictating rules. In a corner, a little boy stands alone. He edges toward the circle awkwardly and retreats when not acknowledged. I am reminded of the time I went clubbing with new friends from work and spent all night trying to make my way into their huddle of synchronised jhatkas.

As the children disband and scuttle in different directions as part of the game, a girl with pigtails stops and walks up to the wallflower boy. In less than a minute, he is running along with her, joining in the wild and aimless squealing. Watching that little girl step out of her established posse to make someone new feel included toasted my heart. It is a simple act of kindness with a lot of weight to it – to notice, to care and then to act.

But how good have we been at doing this – making space for each other?

As we trudge through the ruins sprung from decades (and centuries) of destruction by humans, we can agree that no matter how different countries’ economies are performing, there is an urgent need for compassion in the world as a resource. It’s evident everywhere; looming news of possible wars, trolls on social media, abject inequality in standards of living, the swell of mental health problems. How does something as basic as kindness get neglected to this extent?

I’ve learnt that she has her own tendencies for doing good and harm, and the best I can do is help her figure out the difference.

Governments and corporations don’t want us to bother. They thrive on us being too busy with our own troubles to care about fighting for improvements that we may never see in our lifetime. Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscars speech highlighted this aspect while also evoking hope that humans can use their ingenuity to bring about change that benefits all sentient beings. Which means that although we’re constantly sprinting between being shocked and desensitised, we can still try and work toward a “no one feels left out” world.

Children, unwittingly, are going to be a big part of this mending journey. They’re the promising bridge who will bear the brunt of damage thrust upon them while figuring out how differently they will define the job of existing. They can be levers or amplifiers, they can sigh and continue like us or rebel with their own forms of reason and tenderness.

This puts the onus on us parents and guardians to go beyond focusing on their milestones of growth and development. How can we raise them to be as emotionally capable as intelligent, if not more? How can we stop them going from innocent and impressionable buds to individuals who become too busy to care, too distracted to listen, too self-absorbed to look around and too intolerant to value differences?

Unlike Math that has equations and English with its structured grammar, teaching empathy isn’t a straightforward process. It entails more than kindness; being open- minded, forgiving, and introspective. We can stuff bhindi and DHA-loaded food down their throats to make them smarter and watch the results play out in report cards and school accolades. Nurturing goodness – ah that’s a whole other ball game, one that never really ends.

When I was 14, a girl in my class thought it would be funny to spray ink from her pen on the librarian’s white sari blouse. I was in on the prank and responsible for creating a distraction in case the teacher turned. We got busted after two successful indigo splatters. Our supervisor expressed her disappointment and told us that she wouldn’t send us to detention, but we had to tell our parents what we’d done. My mother listened and let me cry, because at that time I was more scared of her rebuke than what it was within me that thought something so cruel could be cool. She was smart enough to know that yelling wouldn’t be as effective as letting me stew in guilt.

The moral science lessons taught as a subject in our schools don’t help because they merely dictate what is right and wrong without giving children the opportunity to build their own framework of thinking and feeling. Denmark, which has in the past few years made it to the top three in the list of happiest countries, has a mandatory weekly session in its schools called Klassens Tid, where students talk about their problems openly – if they are being bullied or left out – and help each other find solutions.

In his book “Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World”, published in 2016, author Michele Borba, says that loss of empathy is the reason today’s youth are more prone to depression and that empathy paves the way for happiness and success.

When I became a mother I was determined to raise my child as someone who is compassionate and sensitive.  I used to force my daughter to share her toys, nagging her with a desperate passion because I wanted those around us to know that I was doing whatever it took to raise a decent human being. It didn’t really work. She’d hand over a doll resentfully and then sit in a corner glowering at me and the triumphant kid. But she was the same child who would tell me to let every single car cut in while I drove, demonstrating her own perspective on acceptance. She’d ask me why the kids on the street asked for money and why couldn’t I give all of them money. I’ve learnt that she has her own tendencies for doing good and harm, and the best I can do is help her figure out the difference.

Unlike Math that has equations and English with its structured grammar, teaching empathy isn’t a straightforward process.

Compassion isn’t a fleeting emotion but a muscle that needs constant working. It’s time we invested more in preparing our children with the skills needed to build a gentler world instead of gearing them with sharp survival instincts aided by quiet apathy. Even if it means remembering that they are watching and stifling our irritation to let someone get ahead of us.

Who knows, maybe one day we’ll do it. Heal the world. Or at least put the bandages where it matters.