Q&A: How do I foster compassion when it feels like the world does not?

Hello! Parenting for Social Change

After my email last week, I started to pay more attention to how news and events out in the world came up in our family life on a day-to-day basis.

Those reflections reminded me of a question a mother wrote to me that really made me think, and perhaps it’ll inspire you too.

She said, How do I explain to children to be empathetic and compassionate and also make sure they understand that not everybody is kind and people do bad things?”

What I love about this question is that it reflects so much of my own internal process about how trust and compassion aren’t necessarily what we experience in the world. Bad things do happen and people hurt others.

And on top of this, in our own childhoods, we may not have been on the receiving end of trust and compassion in our daily lives. So we often don’t have models for how someone can be compassionate and empathetic in the world while being resilient and able to weather the bad things that happen in life.

I think the challenge for us is that we grow up in “either-or” paradigms. Winners are strong and show no mercy, for example. And people who are empathetic and compassionate are weak. We also hear messages that people are either good or bad. And people who do things to hurt others are bad or evil people.

So first, I’d encourage you to investigate – what do you believe about people who show empathy and compassion? And what do you believe about people who hurt others? Is your fear based in the unknown of other people? Is your fear based on the messages you received about yourself when you did “bad” things as a child, the ways you were treated? Do a bit of digging around and notice what comes up.

If we believe that compassion and empathy make us weak, then the world seems scarier. If we believe that only bad people do bad things, we create a world where we can’t find compassion for our own “failings” and those of others.

But what if we experiment with believing that compassion and empathy are actually assets, that bolster us and make it safer for us to navigate through our lives?

And what if we tried to see that each of us, all human beings are capable of both profound kindness and inflicting hurt on others?

What possibilities do those beliefs open us up to?

In a world where compassion and empathy give us resilience and the ability to come back after something painful or difficult happens, we model that compassion as a strength.

And when we don’t see people as either good or evil, we move beyond seeing others as our enemies. We can look for the humanity within all of us.

So when a child in our lives is on the receiving end of hurt, we provide compassion and empathy for the emotions that come up for them.

And when, inevitably, a child in our lives hurts another child, we also extend that same empathy and compassion. We can choose to see that we often hurt others out of our own pain. So if we can go below the surface of the “bad” behavior we can see what the person needs underneath.

Finally, I would also encourage you to explore the idea that extension of empathy and compassion toward others is intimately linked to our own capacity to demonstrate compassion toward ourselves. You can read more about radical compassion here.

“When we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate. When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity in others.” — Desmond Tutu

And if you want a few pieces about empathy and compassion check these out:
Training Kids for Kindness (great for us as adults too!)
Empathy as Leadership

Sending you much love on your journey,


P.S. If you’re interested in receiving support that takes you deep and unearths more love, more honesty, and more compassion, look into Transform. I designed it to intentionally support families who are ready to transform childhood, transform the world.


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