Curious and Compassionate: Cultivating an Others Orientated Worldview in Children
Without going into too much detail, I can admit that one of my kids is a recovering narcissist. I mean all kids are to a certain extent, it’s human nature. Some people are naturally more wired to be considerate and think of others, while some need to train their brain.
In my case, having an older child who was excessively focused on self, tipped me off early to the importance of training children to be concerned with the needs and well-being of other people.
Naturally, having a general concern for other people is a character attribute we all strive to have and cultivate in our kids because it kind of just defines us as “good people”. But having a mindset of putting others first, or seeing things from another’s perspective (empathy), generally leads to better relationships and a happier outlook on life. If we always look at a situation for how it benefits or drains us, we will likely always walk away feeling at least slightly negative.
Here are a few ways I shape an “others orientated” mindset in my kids:
1. Be curious and compassionate: When my kids ask me about the panhandlers off the freeway exit, I give them an honest response: “I don’t know what their life has looked like. I don’t know if they made poor choices or underwent extreme trauma. We don’t know what situation we would be in had we been dealt the same hand.” I want my kids to be curious about the world and the people in it. Most of the world is very different than the bubble we live in, and therefore it’s important to be curious, and then to be compassionate. The more we learn about other people and their lives the more gratitude we can have for our own, and also compassion for those around us. I also love to show them videos to learn about the world. My kindergarten son was permanently transformed after watching this YouTube video of a Guatemalan child making a several hour trek to school every morning.
2. Circle of Praise: This is a model that I grew up with and I love incorporating into my family life. At dinner or any other chunk of time we are all together (my life lately; the car), we go around in a circle and everyone says something positive about a person at the table. If time allows, we will take turns identifying something for every family member: “everyone say one thing they like about Daddy…now everyone say something they like about big brother…” and so on till everyone gets their moment of praise. For one, it’s great to be on the receiving end and so affirming. Second, this is a great way to connect and build relationships in the family. Finally, it forces us to think positive and look for the good in others. You can train yourself to look for anything. When you are pregnant you notice pregnant people and babies, when you are on the hunt for the perfect shoes, you find yourself staring at people’s feet! (Or is that just me?) What an advantage we can give our kids by training their brains to see the good in things.
3. Model it: This one is simple and also not so simple. I try my best to model concern for others; I provide donations, I do volunteer work and I include my kids in that whenever possible. However, the real battlefield is everyday life. Modeling grace when someone is rude: “wow her day must’ve been really stressful! Hopefully when we feel stressed we will remember to still be kind” (catch that subtle “you can have a bad day, but you still need to be decent” message). But what about in the home? When I ream into my husband for getting home late and screwing up our dinner time, or causing stress getting to an athletic event, I’m not exactly modeling that curious, compassionate, others oriented world view. (I mean really dude, a phone call would help, but I digress) So when I do misstep and act out on MY feelings about MY time and how its causing ME an inconvenience…well, I apologize, in front of the kids. “Babe, I’m sorry I got all frazzled at you for being late, I know you have a lot on your plate.” And because my husband is on the same page he will take ownership and apologize as well. (for the record, it wasn’t always this easy — marriage is hard!)
There are always multiple sides to any story, and it’s good to talk about them. When my recovered narcissist was little I would intentionally build in opportunities for him to consider others. When we were headed to a birthday party, instead or running in and contributing to the mayhem, I’d ask him to scan the room for anyone that seemed like they were being left out, and ask them to play. Or heading into Grandma’s house: “why don’t you look for two things that you can do to be helpful, let me know what they are!” Raising great humans that genuinely care about other people is not easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s one of those things that we have to address daily, in a million different ways. From a simple reminder that just because you wake up, doesn’t mean you wake up the whole house… to complexities like poverty and homelessness. It’s never too late to start, and if you’re prone to screw ups like me- don’t worry! Seeing that you are human and then apologizing when you’re wrong is also a great lesson. None of us are perfect, just trying to be a little better than the day before.
One foot in front of the other, keep on keeping on,