Growing Compassion in your Children

Growing a compassionate attitude in your children means growing one in yourself first. This prayer exercise will help you do this.

One of the great frustrations with raising children is watching the endless bickering, fighting, and just plain meanness exhibited by our kids.  We hope that somehow, as our children grow up, they will become kind loving, unselfish, and caring adults.

The sad truth is, though, that this is not automatic. In the adult world that we live in, there is still plenty of bickering, fighting, and just plain mean people floating around.  Is the world full of nasty people?  I don’t think so.  In fact, I have noticed that some of the nicest folks I know tend to think the world is full of nice people, while some of the most selfish people I know, tend to think the world is, likewise, filled with selfish people.  This observation has driven me to understand how important it is for my children that they grow up on the loving side of the fence.  Because people tend to view the world through the lens of their own soul, selfish people will live in a world of selfish people, which is a miserable place to be, while caring, compassionate people will live in world that is caring and compassionate, and that is a wonderful place to be.

Once this thought took hold of me, the next logical question was this:  As a parent, how do I raise my kids to be compassionate people?

Again, after much reflection, the answer came back to the obvious maxim:

Children imitate their parents.

Therefore, if you want your children to grow to become people of great compassion, you need to first grow your own level compassion.

In my book Essence of Wisdom for Parents, I encourage all parents to continually grow their level of compassion.  In the past, people had the notion that attitudes and attributes like compassion were locked into their person and generally not something that was changeable.  However, there has been some real interesting research on this subject by Richard Davidson, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at UW-Madison.

Richard Davidson’s story is interesting.  He was invited by the Dalai Lama to study the positive mental health of Buddhist monks.  His research eventually led him to usingMRItechnology to evaluate the level of compassionate brain activity in people before and after meditating on compassionate thoughts.  What he found through his research, was that by consistently meditating in a compassionate way, the part of the brain that is active when we are compassionate actually grows.

For Christians reading this, it may seem, at first, like heresy studying another religion to learn about love, but I’ll suggest that if you believe that God’s laws are true, then the next logical conclusion is that they are discoverable.  I think this is the jist of what Paul argues in Romans 2:15.  Therefore, the idea that Buddhist philosophers, Confucius, or today’s observant psychology researchers might discover something of the world God made isn’t only impossible, it’s a near certainty.  On the other hand, it is likely that their understanding of what they have observed will be limited without also having a greater understanding of God.

Having given all the disclaimers, I’ll suggest below a Christian oriented exercise to help grow a caring and loving attitude within yourself.

For the next 30 days, pray 30 minutes a day using the prayer pattern described below.  If you do not feel like you can set aside 30 minutes a day to pray (which will be true of nearly all the readers of this post I am sure), then just do the best you can.

Start your prayer time by thinking about the people close to you that you love.  Your parents, your children, your siblings, whoever it is that is closest to you.  As you are praying for them, think about both their good qualities and those qualities that bother you the most, but then focus back on the love.

Every one of us, (yes – this includes both you and your family) has a mix of good qualities and real issues.  With our close family, we have found a way to see past these issues and find the beautiful person underneath.  As you pray for your family, you will also come to understand that many of the “issues” that your loved ones have are really scars from past pain in their lives.  We all understand pain, and we all understand the scars that it can give us.  Scars that can build up into a hard shell that begins to hide us from the rest of the world.  Hide us from all except those caring enough to see through them.

As you continue your prayer, start to change your focus from your immediate family to other people in your life.  Co-workers, neighbors, the people in your small group – whoever else is in your life.  As you did with your immediate family, think about their good qualities and their bad qualities.  Think about their scars, but also think about the wonderful human being that may be trapped behind those scars.  This human being may need your love, your kindness, and your encouragement to break free of those scars.

As the final phase of your prayer time, change your focus again to people in your life that seem to make life difficult for you, a nasty boss, a troubling co-worker, whoever they may be and repeat this process outlined above.  If they are nasty people, think about what their life must be like.  Do they have a circle of warm supportive friends?  Do they have a world filled with deep meaningful relationships?  Quite possibly not.   They may be living in a hollow empty world, perhaps filled with possessions, but not relationships.

As you start your prayer exercise, you will go into it understanding that the love and compassion you have for others runs at different levels.  For your immediate family, you may have greater feelings than you do for your neighbors.  Is this the way it should be though?  Recall the old saying that was popular a few years ago – the question “What would Jesus do?”

Well in Mathew 12:46-50 we get our answer:

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

You see that Jesus does not love his immediate family any less than you do, what Jesus is demonstrating is that he doesn’t love any of his children any less.  All the people in your life were created by God and deserving of your greatest love and compassion.

It is prudent to realize, as you exercise and grow your compassion for others, that being compassionate does not imply that you should be taken advantage of or that you know longer have to do time management.  You do not have to give all your money to everyone who has a need.  You will go broke quickly.  Money is one of those things that the more you give, the less you have.  However, you can give other more valuable things away.  Kind words, a sympathetic ear, recognition, and encouragement are things that grow within you the more you give them away.  My suggestion is to start with these as you begin to utilize the newfound well of compassion within you.

If you keep this prayer habit up, and this new outlook on people, you will find that your children will emulate it.  As your children become teenagers and old enough to understand, take the time to talk to them about compassion and how to always look for the real person underneath the shell.  If you do these things, then you will be on your way to setting your child up for a good life.

Choosing Baby Names

Choosing a name for your baby is one of the more exciting and frustrating things you must do as a new parent. Here are a couple of key thoughts that may help you:

Baby 15323Choosing a name for your baby is one of the more exciting and sometimes frustrating things that you must do as a new parent. I’ve been through the process four times now and thankfully, together with my wife, ended up picking the right names each time!

If you haven’t already, you will soon be going through baby name books and on-line name lists. You may have also started to get a stream of helpful suggestions from friends and family. As you go the process of collecting and evaluating potential names, there are a couple of key thoughts that may help you in your selection process:

  • If it is a boy’s name your after, then do you want to name it after its father?

Having a junior, a 3rd, or a 4th can be really meaningful to a baby’s father and can help create a magical connecting bond between father and son.  There can be truly something special about this if it is something the father wants.  If you go this route, though, you may also want to consider wether you will call your child by its first or middle name.  Personally, I think simply using the first name is fine, but either way works.

  • Do you want honor another family member?

Getting married and changing last names can sometimes leave a small void in a girl’s life. Using either your maiden name, or naming your baby after your parents can be a good way to re-build that feeling of connectedness.

  • Continuing, or starting a family naming tradition can be fun.

For example, in some families, all the girls share the same middle name, generation after generation. Again, this is the type of name that can build a relational bond within the family. In George Foreman’s family, all the boys are named George. (Of course George Foreman may get mad at you if you steal his idea so you may want to take a pass on this last suggestion.)

  • Does the name have flexibility?

Children often like to change their names as they go through school, and even through life. For example, a name like Robert has many possibilities: Robert, Robby, Bob & Bobby. Boys seem to like to change their name when they grow older as a sign of manhood, allowing Bobby to give way to Bob (if they go into sales), or Robert (if they become a lawyer).

Young girls seem to enjoy changing their name with mood, sometimes several times a day if the name has the built in flexibility.  Middle names can help with this.

  • Do you want your child to have a unique name?

This is harder than you think because sometimes-unique names go in waves. A friend of mine named her child Brittany because she thought it was unique. At the time, I had not heard the name before. It turns out that they were in the start of the Brittany wave – there were three other Brittany’s in her kindergarten class.

  • Is the name going to get your child beat-up at school?

For some reason, guys worry about this more than their wives. While shying away from names like Gadaffi, Sadaam, & Adolf is probably a good idea, you can’t worry too much because it turns out that kids in second grade are clever enough to make fun of just about any name.

The two biggest challenges that I found in naming my children is that almost every name we could think of caused us to remember someone in our past lives that had the name and so there was always some mental association that we couldn’t overcome. The other problem we had, of course, is that my wife and I could not always agree on our favorites.

Summary Wisdom

After going through this process the four times, I think I can share a couple bits of wisdom:

  • Prepare a short list and wait

Narrow the list down to a small handful of names and then wait to have your baby so that you can see what it looks like. You may find that when you’re finally holding that little bundle of joy in your arms that it just doesn’t look like a George W. or a Hillary. If those were the only names you had in mind, then you may feel stuck. (If those where the only names you had in mind, then you may have other issues as well.) In any case, narrow it down to a short list of favorites and see which one fits them the best once those cute little eyes are looking right back into your face. Trying calling them by the different names and see which one feels right. And don’t worry if your spouse’s favorite choice is the same name as the kid in fourth grade who stepped on your lunch box. Once your baby has the name, they will re-define all those mental associations into something wonderful.

  • There is a fallback

On our last child, my wife and I sat in the hospital for an hour because they would not let us leave until we decided on a name. My wife and I both had favorites. In the end, we went with my wife’s favorite (pretty much a given), but when we had her baptized, we added in my pick, and so my last daughter has two middle names: talk about flexibility!

  • Don’t neglect the important stuff

Finally, it turns out that as new parents our focus was entirely on the things that make the least difference in our children’s lives. Choosing a name for your child is fun, but it does not do anything to help prepare you to raise children to become the people that you would like them to become. You may be worrying about what name to give them, but if you don’t want your child to end up being called that depressed kid, that problem child, or worse, inmate #15323, then as a couple starting out as new parents, you need to really start thinking about the more complex aspects to parenting – now! Your success in parenting really comes from the accumulation of minor decisions you make each day and it is important to have in the back of your mind the foundational wisdom that will help keep those decisions moving you in the right direction. This is why I wrote Essence of Wisdom for Parents: to bring to the forefront of your mind some of the important aspects of raising your children while keeping the joy in your marriage.

Doing a great job raising children isn’t any harder than doing a bad job, in fact, it’s probably easier and it’s certainly less stressful.

So have fun picking out the babies name but also take the time with your spouse to read and learn about the simple little things that will help guide your daily decisions and before you know it, you’ll find yourself arm-in-arm with your spouse at your child’s graduation, and you’ll be saying to them: (Your childs name here) I’m so proud of not only what you’ve accomplished, but who you’ve become!

Crying Babies

Edvard Munch - The ScreamI’m not an art historian, but I’m sure that if I checked, I’ll find that Edvard Munch painted The Scream shortly after his wife gave birth to his first infant.

In the weeks and months before our first babies are born, our world is filled with thoughts of pretty pink and blue blankets, of fluffy stuffed animals, and of holding cooing babies in our arms as we rock back and forth on quite Sunday mornings. What we really want is that little bundle of joy and its unconditional love for us that is supposed to fill every crevice and void in our lives.

This rosy picture of parenthood begins to change with the first pangs of real labor. After birth, we are sent back to our homes with this little bundle of joy that, frequently, turns into a little bundle of screaming need.

For some babies, their needs can be quickly identified. You find that they were simply ready to eat (again), or maybe needed a new diaper (again), or maybe it was just too quiet, or maybe they just need to be held (again). After all, this baby was held for nine months and it’s just not used to all that stillness.

Yes, for those babies, and for those mothers, life is fairly simple. However, if you’re still reading this post, it’s likely that you haven’t been so lucky. You may be wondering what you were thinking having a baby, you aren’t prepared, you don’t know what to do, this little tiny thing is making you insane!

If these are the thoughts running through your mind, then please take a moment to relax a little. You are in the company of millions of parents who have had to struggle with all these emotions and with all this noise, and yet have made it through OK. The ooy-gooy parental experience will arrive in time, trust me.

One piece of advice I used to share with people (but that I chose not to include in Essence of Wisdom for Parents), is that the best way of dealing with a crying baby is to find a home with more than two floors. This was simply my way of injecting a little lightness into a stressful situation. If you have a crying baby and you’ve checked all the obvious things, then of course go talk to your doctor to make sure that there isn’t anything serious going on. What you’re likely to find is that the baby has colic. Colic is one of those medical terms which have no other value than to make us feel better that the problem has finally been identified. Colic is Latin for your baby cries all the time which also implies, of course, that you are not getting enough sleep which may be causing depression, anxiety, restlessness, and general thoughts of what have I got myself into?

Your doctor will tell you to hang in there and that the crying will settle down in a few months. In seriousness, if the depression and anxiety starts to get to you too much, you need to see a doctor yourself.

Now that my children are older, I can look back on these times and see how they worked to help me grow into a better parent. Those pre-baby feelings of pink and blue blankets are, in a way, selfish feelings. They are focused on how this new baby will make me feel and how the baby will grow up to be a cute little girl or active little boy that will make me proud. In our teenage years and into early adulthood our brains are wired to be self-focused as we make sense of who we are and how we fit into the world. When you become a parent, however, it is time to become selfless focused. It is time to commit your life to taking care of someone else. Parenting is a life of service that if done right, has rewards far beyond any selfish rewards we may have dreamed of.

That crying baby is a wake-up call to you that you are not in control of everything, you are not going to know everything, and this little tyke is a unique little independent human being that you may never fully understand. The baby is not here to serve your need for love, but rather, to provide you an opportunity to express your love through a life-time of patient service, through kind words, through measured discipline, and through endless forgiveness (hold onto that last part for twelve or thirteen years, it will make more sense then.)

So when the baby is crying, do what you can, but then when there is nothing more that you can do, then do nothing more. Spend a little time in prayer asking the Lord for another day of strength and wisdom, maybe watch a little TV (these two things are not interchangeable), and if you are lucky, perhaps ask a relative of friend to come watch the little one while you either go out (yes you have to come back) or get some sleep.

These few months of crying are one of those things that make you stronger and more compassionate as a parent.

Oh, and if it makes you feel any better, almost everyone I’ve spoken to that has had a colicky baby, indicated that only one of their children has been colicky. So if you had always wanted a larger family but are now terrified (a feeling shared by every parent of a colicky baby), then fear not.

Thumb Sucking

thumb and finger sucking is a habit that starts in the womb. For these kids, their whole brain structure is wired to be at peace when those fingers are in the mouth.

Baby sucking on fingersLate night comedian Stephen Colbert, on The Colbert Report, has had a segment on his show called ThreatDown in which he highlights the latest list of things all Americans should fear. Of course what makes Stephen so funny is that he treats as serious things which may be ridiculous, but which are actually treated as serious by the rest of our society – if that makes sense.

With the tremendous advances in technology, parents are now inundated with information about all the things can threaten the well-being of our children. The difficult part is that most of these threats are real. There are in fact a huge multitude of things in this world which can threaten the well-being of our children, but it is important to realize that this is the way the world was meant to be. From the dawn of time the world has been both wonderful and threatening. To keep your sanity as a parent, you need to pick and choose carefully what to worry about and what to just let go.

The truth of the matter is that in some cases, excessive thumb and finger sucking by children can possibly lead to some dental problems when they get older. Two of my four children where avid thumb and finger suckers growing up and for some time, we worried about the huge orthodontist bills we might face down the road and so with the first of the two, we decided to do something about it.

After months, and then years, of fighting this scourge, I’ve gotten a little philosophical on the subject.

I believe that thumb and finger sucking is a habit that starts in the womb. For these kids, their whole brain structure is wired to be at peace when those fingers are in the mouth. Most of us have some form of comfort food that we seek out when we are feeling down: for some it may be tea and biscuits enjoyed on a quiet window seat as the sun streams across us, warming our skin. For others, it may be a thanksgiving meal, shared with our closest loved ones. For finger-sucking children, this same sense of comfort is provided by those fingers. As they sit or lay there with the fingers in the mouth, a gentle flow of serotonin ebbs and flows through their veins and they just know that life is now good.

Trying to take this away from them is about as easy as taking crack away from a crack addict. For infants, they won’t understand what is wrong, but they will just know that the world has turned evil. As they grow into toddlers, they will start to see you as the source of this evil.

For several years, I was this source of all that was evil in the world for my daughter as I tried about everything I could think of to to get her to stop with the thumb. Over time, she learned how to deal with this evil (aka me) and how to take whatever it was that I had to give. She learned to defiantly lick the hot-sauce from her thumb, she learned to suck through the sock we placed on her hand at night. In short, she learned how to survive despite these cruelties we inflicted upon her.

You can never really know true cause and effect in the lives of children – there are so many variables that factor into their lives. This first child became my strong-willed child who has taught me so much about what it means to be a parent. I cannot help but think that learning to deal with her parents and how to overcome our attempts to stop the finger sucking helped shape this fierce sense of independence.

So my advice now to parents dealing with the fingers in the mouth is that if you are looking to raise a fiercely independent toddler who is strong-willed and which will teach you more about patience then you ever want to know, then go ahead and try to stop them.