On Compassion

After finishing our practice SAT, one of my students jokingly remarked “When are they going to test us on compassion?” It was meant to be rhetorical, a comment that got a few laughs and “yeah!”’s, but it struck me in the center of a pool of personal curiosity, and made a splash.

“That’s actually a really awesome question,” I responded, “What is your definition of compassion, Sarah?”

I teach at an Expeditionary Learning school, which bases itself on a pedagogy closely tied with Outward Bound and that owes its roots to a man named Kurt Hahn. “I regard it as the foremost task of education to ensure the survival of these qualities:” wrote Hahn, “an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion.” Sarah was simply drawing upon some of what our school’s self-proclaimed goals were, and yet, I felt as if there presented itself an opportunity to really test our collective understanding of the concept (including my own).

Sarah responded “Well, isn’t it about, like, being nice to other people and stepping into their shoes?”

“I think it’s a topic worthy of our exploration, analysis, and evaluation…” I suggested.

This began a collective exploration into compassion composed by my students, myself, and our community. We invite you to read and contribute your own ideas to our analysis.

Our analysis begins with an allegory: a young girl, age 3, wants a cookie for breakfast. “But I do want a cookie for breakfast,” after her father questions that desire.

“I understand that you want a cookie for breakfast,” dad returns, “but you can’t have a cookie for breakfast, and here’s why […]”

Is this dad being compassionate to his daughter?

What if the girl was 18? What if the father omitted the “and here’s why […]” part of the response? What if he omitted that part of the response because he knows from experience the daughter doesn’t rationally listen and takes it as an extended invitation to argue? What if the girl was having a hard day? What if it was her birthday?

M.D. and Ph.D. in Psychology, Leonard Sax, is one of America’s premier thinkers and synthesizers of contemporary trends in child development. In his latest book, The Collapse of Parenting, Sax is quick to note that today we hear a lot less of the typical 1970’s response “Because mommy/daddy said so,” to the infamous kid-question “why?” Parents today are following suite with equality and civil rights movements by empowering children to make their own decisions. In principle, this is a great idea! However, in practice it is irredeemably flawed. Instead of teaching children ‘to make choices,’ (even when we are successful in guiding them to the right choice – the choice we wanted them to make), it teaches that they always have a say in the matter, and to use leverage to get that say. On the plus side, the child who uses leverage to get what they want is being creative in pursuing a goal… however, the creative pursuit tends to fly in the face of the character values that Hahn so vehemently strived for, and that tend to be the moral glue that keep society together. Moreover, there are many aspects of society and culture where we don’t have a say in the matter. If I want food, I have to grow it or buy it with money that I have to earn. If I want to live in a democracy, I have to go to Jury Duty when called, and I must behave as expected while serving.

We’ve all seen the kid who has learned that they have choice in whether or not mom is going to buy them candy at the store. They throw a screaming tantrum in the grocery store to get their way (this is actually the scenario in which the Executive Director of my school first met Sarah, ironically…). In my mind, the larger problem is that this strategy, though it makes sense from the child’s myopic perspective, doesn’t lead to a truly fulfilled life in the long-term. Kids haven’t learned about activation energy and The Grind, about the difference between pleasure and enjoyment, and are unintentionally self-sabotaging the dopamine system.

Being compassionate as an adult, mentor, educator, or parent includes the consideration of the long-term health and fulfillment of the human with whom you are interacting. It is considering the developmental trajectory of this life, and helping to shape it for the best when they are not yet capable of such feats. No one would argue that parents play that role for newborns – that a newborn would be less well-off in the long-term should it be totally left to its own devices! It’s time we start to reel back in the speed at which we release that responsibility as parents and teachers, and of course the release is not linear. As a small child, your role may well be to regulate decisions and play the positive ‘cheerleader’ for your kid’s accomplishments. As a kid morphs into an adolescent, the parental and teacher role may morph into that of an athletic coach – to congratulate achievements, but also critique and push performance, and to dig deep to draw out the best in a kid. This isn’t always easy. But it’s compassionate.

Compassion isn’t always doing what’s wanted in the moment. It’s doing what’s needed in the long-run.

So as for the scenarios laid forth in the allegory – was the father being compassionate in each? Personally, I’m still not sure – I think it comes down to the specifics of the moment, which always contain more factors than we can rationally analyze, and thus some of our ‘gut experience’ may be necessary to answer. What do you think?

References:
Sax, L. (2016). The collapse of parenting: How we hurt our kids when we treat them like grown-ups : the three things you must do to help your child or teen become a fulfilled adult. New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.

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