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Raising Compassionate Kids

It can be a struggle these days to impart compassion and empathy on our children. Every year I see it getting worse and worse. The more people are sucked into their screens, the less emotional literacy they seem to display to the people around them. All of our communities would reap the benefits of a population of kids who are attentive to others and strive to improve the lives of others, instead of only their own.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama comforting a young survivor during his visit to the Tsunami devastated region of Sendai, Japan on November 5, 2011. (Photo by Tenzin Choejor/OHHDL)

The Selfie Syndrome is a form of growing narcissism in children and teens characterized by entitlement, inability to take responsibility for their actions, and a self-absorbed nature. It is the direct result of our high-tech, media-saturated culture. But yoga and mindfulness, coupled with the following few short ideas, can help course correct children away from selfish motives and toward empathy and compassion.

Teach your children emotional literacy - that is, the ability to recognize and manage the feelings of others and themselves. This is critical for anyone trapped in a hyper-macho, toxic masculine culture or family. Unfortunately, on average, boys show lower levels of emotional literacy than girls. This is due, in part, to the differences in the way boys and girls are raised and treated in our patriarchal society.

You have to start young. Talk to your kids when they're toddlers about their feelings. Labeling and validating your children's emotional states can get them in the habit of regulating those emotions and then dealing with others' emotions in positive, healthy, and helpful ways. If your kids are already older than four or five, you can create situations for them to spend time with babies and toddlers, since the emotions of younger children come out in unfiltered ways. Finally, instruct your children how to read non-verbal communicative cues, like facial expressions and tone of voice. These skills seem to be getting rarer and rarer as more and more communication shifts from face-to-face toward text and screen-based.

Additionally, you can help your kids to put themselves in other people's shoes. This is more officially known as Perspective-Taking. Considering other people's perspective is a skill that paves the way for kindness and supports conflict resolution and compromise. Imagining what someone else may be going through and feeling through focused attentive listening and other cues, can shift a concept that is outside your child and put it inside them. Suggesting questions such as: How would you feel... can encourage your children to wear the emotional shoes of someone else.

Of course, it almost goes without saying that a yoga and/or meditation practice can also help you cultivate mindfulness in your children. And that mindfulness will also be integral in the development of their empathy and compassion toward others.


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