compassion doesn’t always come naturally

by vanessagobes

Last night my 7-year-old whacked her big sister in the head with a hard toy.  Big sister cried out in pain and started to sob dramatically (a bit too dramatically); little sister walked away casually, shrugging her shoulders, “I didn’t do it on purpose.”

“Well your sister is in tears over there.  Ask her if she’s okay and give her a hug.  Apologize.”

“But I didn’t mean to do it.”

“But she’s crying.  Your mistake hurt her body.”

With another shrug and a little eye roll, she did what came naturally – ignored us and went back to playing with her toy.

Sound familiar?  I assume that I am not the only mother dealing with this sort of behavior.  It’s so frustrating.  My husband attributes this inability to react with compassion to a combination of stubbornness and pride.  He might be right, it sure makes sense to me.  But how do you fix that?  Or can you?

My oldest and youngest  children have a natural compassionate tendency.  Though they don’t understand diplomacy, a tool that helps us to employ our compassion interpersonally, the feelings exist and they’re well on their respective ways toward a lifetime of caring.

There are lots of kids, like my 7-year-old middle child, for whom compassion is not innate.  She just has to learn and develop the feeling.

After last night’s toy-smacking episode, I sat down with her in bed and the conversation went something like this:

“We’re all born knowing things.  You naturally have a beautiful eye for fashion.  You are creative and colorful and instinctively know how to sew.  You are naturally curious and love to read.  You naturally have terrific rhythm and are musically inclined.  These are all gifts.  But there are things that are important for you to understand that don’t come naturally for you.  Like compassion.  Do you know what compassion is?”


“Tell me.”

“I don’t know, Mommy.”

“Compassion is deeply understanding how another person or animal is suffering.  Does that make sense?”


“Okay, picture yourself walking home from school in winter time.  There’s a toddler on the sidewalk, alone and underdressed.  He’s shivering cold.  How would it feel for you to see a little boy that way?”

She stuck up her thumb and then slowly turned it to point down.

“Okay.  Would you imagine how cold he must be?”

Her head nodded.

“What would you do?  Would you walk by?”

“No, I’d take off my coat and put it on the baby.”

“Well that is a show of compassion.  You could imagine how cold that baby must have felt and that the baby was suffering.  So you used your power to help him.  Did you smile at him when you helped him?”

“Uh-huh,” she smiled big and climbed into my lap so I could rock her like a baby.

“So you showed him kindness, too.  That’s great!  But you know, when we learn a new skill, it’s important to spend some time practicing it.  If we want to be good at something we need to practice.  Just like the guitar or sewing.  So how about I give you a little assignment?”


“Tomorrow night when you come home, I want you to tell me one act of compassion or kindness that you showed to someone during the day.  Can you do that?”

“Mom, that’s embarrassing.”

“Honey, this isn’t embarrassing.  This is life.  Life is hard sometimes, isn’t it?  And it only gets harder.  But there are some tools that can help make the hard times a little easier.  Your breathing is one tool.  Compassion is another.  But you’ve gotta start practicing now.  There’s nothing embarrassing about that.  What do you think?  Wanna try?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you listening to what I’m saying?”


“Okay, give it a shot for just one day and tell me what happens.  Will you try?”

She shook her head.

We spent a few more minutes snuggling then I tucked her under the covers.  We’ve had a hundred conversations about compassion and honestly, I’m not sure why the lessons don’t stick.  But I’m confident that my little lectures are seeping in somehow so I’ll continue to give them.

This morning while she was still sleeping I crept into her room and climbed under her covers, “Wake up, sleepyhead.  It’s a cold day today.”

She rolled out of bed, hair tangled in knots, and shuffled toward her closet, “Is it cold like milk?”

She’s naturally funny, too.

From mine to yours,


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