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How to Help Kids Find Compassion in Hard Times, and Why It Matters

By Jon Ogden, Uplift Cofounder — 

Recently my spouse wrote about her German grandmother who was seven years old when Hitler rose to power. “Her youth was spent in war, though she didn’t speak of it very often,” my spouse writes. “But when she did, she always ended her stories the same: ‘War is hell,’ she said. ‘War is hell.’”

This same grandmother had been kicked out of her home at the age of 14 when her mother died of cancer. Her father had decided, on the recommendation of his long-time mistress, that there wasn’t enough room in the home for all of his newly deceased wife’s kids. So at 14 my spouse’s grandmother walked the lonely road to a neighboring city in search of a job and a place to live. Eventually, she was conscripted against her will to shine spotlights at British planes so German soldiers could shoot them down at night. 

It all sounds unimaginably horrible, a story of a young girl in need of compassion.

When times are hard — whether at home, in our neighborhood, or across the world — it’s difficult to know how to help our children cope. We don’t want to needlessly expose them to trauma, nor should we. And yet, as outlined below, helping kids process hard times is pivotal to their ability to practice compassion.

So, in conjunction with our newly revamped lesson on compassion, here are a few suggestions to help at home.

Embrace the Paradox of Compassion

Compassion is about more than just sharing the suffering of others, which in itself can lead to “emotional burnout,” according to Olga Klimecki, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

By contrast, compassion is about connecting with the suffering of others while simultaneously embodying generosity. In this vein, Klimecki and her team found that research participants who practiced a series of loving-kindness meditations before witnessing videos of human beings in distress experienced a healthier physiological response than those who didn’t do such practices — suggesting that, in Klimecki’s words, “Compassion is a good antidote. It allows us to connect to others’ suffering without being too distressed.”

In light of this, at the heart of compassion is a paradox. We “suffer with” other people (as the root of the word points to), and in the process of alleviating that suffering we find meaning in life, which ultimately makes us happier. As the Dalai Lama once wrote, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Put another way, compassion is a hurt that leads to happiness. It’s not a call to seek excessive suffering, negativity, or cynicism, all of which is a surefire path to misery. It just means that when we happen to encounter suffering — and we will, whether at home or abroad — we don’t pretend it isn’t there, as the call toward toxic positivity (“good vibes only!”) encourages.

By avoiding emotional burnout while still connecting to the suffering of others, we’re better equipped to alleviate that suffering. This is one reason why compassion matters.

Demonstrate What to Do With the News

The news can be paralyzing in an age when there’s no way to read or view it all. If we’re not mindful, we may find ourselves scrolling without purpose or watching TV news for hours on end, all of which sends the wrong message to our kids.

If you relate to this, ask yourself if your current relationship with the news is driven more by a desire for transformation and compassion, or by boredom and ego. What is the fruit of your time with the news?

When we’re clear about our intent, we can work to purify it so that our kids learn how to use the news for inner transformation. We can then exemplify what this looks like. For instance, if you’ve encountered a story of bravery, heroism, or compassion, consider sharing it with your kids along with how it made you feel. For example: “I read a story about a woman who confronted a soldier who had invaded her land. She let the soldier know that what he was doing was wrong. Her courage inspired me to think about the ways I can be braver in my life.” In this way, your kids can avoid directly experiencing the news themselves — which is often driven by fear, sensationalism, and profit motive — but still remained informed in a way that’s developmentally beneficial.

In addition, if you’re reading a news story and discover a way you can help (and have the means to do so), let your kids participate with you. You might say, “There’s a war happening in another country, and people are hurting. I found a way to give support. It’s a small way to show compassion during a time of pain.”

This way you show your kids what the news is for — not for numbing, not for paralysis, not for ego, but for inner transformation, connection, and giving.

Practice in Your Neighborhood

Knowing about the pain of others in distant lands doesn’t have to only result in us sending aid there. It can also inspire us to help close to home. 

For instance, I’m inspired by a friend of mine who, in the wake of terrible national news, went with his kids door to door with flowers, letting his neighbors know their family cared about them.

I’m also deeply moved by this poem by Bertolt Brecht, which urges the reader to take compassion — to know that even small actions matter.

A Bed for the Night by Bertolt Brecht
I hear that in New York
At the corner of 26th Street and Broadway
A man stands every evening during the winter months
And gets beds for the homeless there
By appealing to passers-by.

It won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation
But a few men have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway.

Don’t put down the book on reading this, man.

A few people have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway
But it won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation.

***

The best way to teach compassion to kids, ultimately, is to demonstrate what it’s like to feel pain and alleviate it. By demonstrating this process and having natural conversations about it in the home, you plant the seeds for a more compassionate world during hard times.

When your kids witness you suffering with others in order to compassionately help alleviate that suffering, they learn that true happiness isn’t about getting everything the ego craves. This teaching is a core part of being ethical in the world. As Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at Berkeley, writes, “When we encounter people in need or distress we often imagine what their experience is like. This is a great developmental milestone — to take the perspective of another. It is not only one of the most human of capacities; it is one of the most important aspects of our ability to make moral judgments and fulfill the social contract.” 

If we always shield our kids from the pain of the world, we risk stunting their ability to learn compassion.

Hard times are the ground in which compassion grows.

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