I fell the other day. The chair and I just didn’t connect somehow, and with a crash, I found myself on the floor with a sore elbow. Emmy came rushing over and touched my arm. “You OK? I’m sorry!” she said with concern all over her small face.
Looking at headlines on news sites can be a depressing and horrifying thing. Over and over again, we witness the terrible results when people fail to learn empathy and compassion. Where there is no compassion and no ability to connect with the humanness in others, people become bestial, and terrible consequences result.
Children learn empathy and compassion in the very air they breathe in the home.When babies are attended to promptly when they cry or are hungry or wet, they learn that they have value, and they learn to trust. On this trust hangs everything.
As children grow, we as parents and teachers and neighbors teach about compassion by example. Mothers attending to a hurt child inquire, “Are you OK?” That’s where Emmy learned to be concerned for her own mother. She had experienced parental concern many times before, and she knew that when someone is hurt, it’s a bad thing.
We had a wonderful neighbor when I was growing up. She had seven children herself and was matriarch of the neighborhood. One time when I was rushing to school in second grade, I tripped and fell directly into a muddy puddle. My mother was already gone when I ran back home sobbing with a torn up knee and dirty socks. I didn’t know what to do. Mrs. S. saw me on the porch and brought me inside her house. A few minutes later, with a bandaged knee and a pair of her daughter’s clean socks, I was ready to go on to school. Yes, compassion can be learned from neighbors.
Children can also learn compassion by how we treat pets and wild animals. A bird feeder gives opportunity to talk about how birds get hungry in winter and that we can help. Daily feeding and caring for a pet provides valuable lessons for children on responsibility for others, including creatures of all sizes.
Our son Charlie had a parakeet that lived for 13 years. I think the reason the bird lived so long was that the 9-year-old new pet owner learned that careful handling, feeding, cage cleaning and nail trimming all made for a healthy and happy bird. Early on when I would catch a feeder empty or water tank depleted, I would make an issue of it. “Imagine yourself thirsty and hungry and there’s no way to tell anyone!” I would say. It made the children think. It made them empathize. That is something they will carry with them all their lives.
Our own pain makes us sensitive to the pain of others. If you’ve ever known chronic and severe pain or even a brief time of real agony physically or emotionally, it makes you keenly aware of suffering. And when someone else is in pain you will never be able to see it without understanding and sympathy springing up.
We may see more or less of this sympathy, empathy and compassion in our children’s personalities. Type A’s especially need to be reminded continually of the need to imagine oneself in the shoes of others. Without that ability, that particular personality type risks becoming ruthless.
This world is a cold and bleak place without empathy. As we carefully study our children and their development, it’s important to ask God to help us instill in them the compassion of our Savior, and His love for others. The innate selfishness we as humans possess in our sinful hearts can only be replaced when our hearts are made right with God.
Our first example is found in Jesus himself. I love this line from Matthew, Chapter 9, verse 36.
But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.
He was moved with compassion. That says it all.