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I have been surfing the net using these terms:  Empathy, Compassion, Children.

This is what I have seen on Google:  Teaching Empathy to Children, Animals Teach Empathy to Children, Teach Your Children Compassion.

I can say that most of us need Empathy training.  I experience a huge lack of Empathy in our world.  And even for those who have Empathy, it is reinforcing to spend a little time studying, learning, practicing, and sharing the experience with others.  

But there is something that bothers me.  I have discovered that a lot of people do not believe that children have any kind of empathy at all and that we as adults must take it upon ourselves to teach children how to be empathic.

Look at all the news reports on bullying and hazing and other cruel behavior that some children and adults inflict on others.   It would be easy to assume that children are not born with empathy. 

Recently I was shocked by a news interview with a medical doctor who stated quite categorically that:  ………  Children Are Not Born With Empathy And Compassion.  They Must Be Taught.

I could hardly disagree more.

In so many discussions that I have had with parents and other adults, the other person always assumes that children must be taught compassion, that children have no respect for parents or for others beyond themselves, that children are narcissistic and will remain so until we the adults train them to be empathic and respectful. 

So we adults tend to treat children as somehow deviant until we set them straight.

You have heard some zealots say, We have to beat the fear of God into them and put them on the straight and narrow.   Spare the rod, spoil the child.

I know of parents who slap their babies because the baby dares to move and wiggle during a diaper change.  Trust me, I know of no child who wants to be bound up in tight fitting, itchy clothing.  Babies like the freedom to move and run around without clothes.

But back to the point of this essay. 

I have witnessed in my lifetime such cruelty and have listened to parents defend themselves for hitting their children.  I have known mothers who have hit small children with wooden spoons.  Or a father who pulled off his belt to hit his tiny little six year old.  She was so petite and so sweet.

And most of this seems to happen in the name of God who has seemingly condoned the hitting of children.  Little people who are only two or three feet tall.  And that sentiment seems also to underlie the beliefs of those who are not the religious type.

I remember that awful book that we had to suffer through somewhere in my junior high or high school days:  The Lord of the Flies.  Written by Sir William Gerald Golding.

So the story goes that a number of children survived a plane crash, no adults survived, and the children found themselves alone on an island.  The children fell into two camps:  one camp that was out to rule the island and literally kill the other children to do so, and the other camp that tried to stay alive.

The story line assumes that children are generally born lawless and that adults must teach their children how to be empathic.   

I have known children who were hit by parents, spanked, slapped, yelled at, threatened, degraded, punished …………. Am I making my point?  Let’s make sure ….

belittled, frightened, ……………….

Ah – frightened.

I read or hear about adults who say that they must instill fear into and demand respect from their children.  “How else,” they ask, “would my child learn to be good?”

The irony is so blatant.  Teach fear to learn goodness?

Does anyone else “feel” the contradiction gnawing at your bones?

Let’s lay it out like a grocery list:

?  Children are not born with Empathy and Compassion.

?  Children must be taught E + C.

?  We must use fear to teach goodness.

?  Society must demand of them obedience, submission, and respect.

Does anyone else hurt yet reading these words?

We have got it backwards and we wonder why the world is so messed up.

How we raise our children does have something to do with the mess the world is in.  The whole world.  

We have got it backwards.  We believe that children are born lacking in humanity and we believe in a God who is loving. More irony.  

How many times have we heard adults say to children:  Now say please; now say thank you; now say you are sorry; now say you are welcome; now say this; now say that. 

Unfortunately, neither fear nor bullying can create good.  It is impossible.  They are mutually exclusive.  Fear cannot make someone love you.

Think about it.  We adults neglect, scream, yell, hit, kick, injure, and shun and bully our children and then we wonder, why is my kid so messed up?  Why hasn’t my kid learned goodness, virtue, and kindness?

And just how are children supposed to learn goodness, virtue, etc…….?

We wonder why our children feel such resentment towards us, themselves, and other children that they have learned to bully.  And just where did they learn to bully?

They have to learn it somewhere.  Perhaps at home? 

Too many people have major stockpiles of anger and they share it with their children.  I have experienced that.

How many times have you heard yourself or others say to children, “You are ruining my day.”

I worked in day care for a couple of years.  I watched the children in the modern day care center all day long.

Some came as early as 7 am, and some remained there until 5 or 6 pm in the evening.  That’s a long day for an infant, a toddler, preschooler, kindergartner.

By the end of  a long day without Mom and Dad and having had to compete with 6, 10, and 15 other children for the teacher’s attention, the children were tired, distraught, barely able to keep it together.

And then Mom or Dad appears at the classroom door, and the child goes into meltdown.  The child begins to cry.  The child wants to be held, noticed, and cuddled by Mom & Dad.  The child approaches the parent.  And the parent reacts out of his or her own rotten day, and says to the small child, three years old, “Don’t you start.  Don’t you whine.  Don’t you cry.”

And the parent turns to leave the building and expects the child to follow along and be cheerful and cooperative.

Where in all of this could a child possibly learn kindness, empathy, and compassion?

I watched one mother belittle and rip her child’s self-esteem to shreds for having eaten candy that belonged to another child.  On the last day of school.  It was the last time I ever saw him.  I wonder who he has become as an adult.

We destroy the child’s sense of Dignity, Pride, and Self-Esteem.  And Empathy.  And Compassion.   And Understanding.  And Love.

I was in the World Market store years ago and I was checking out and chatting with the cashier.  I can’t remember precisely what we were talking about.   But I found myself saying, Oh thank you, thank you, and thank  you.

Suddenly, behind me in the check out lane, I heard a small boy repeating my words.  Thank you, Thank you.

Every time I said it, he said it.

I managed to say something like, those are good words to know.

I have no idea how his family functioned, but it occurred to me that that little boy learned “Thank you” because his parents said it to him FIRST.

Children learn by Imitation not Abstract Rules.

Let me finally get to my point.  Here it comes………

* Children are born with a huge capacity to love and be loved.

* Children are born already full of Empathy and Compassion.

And the really painful part …………

* It is the adult who robs the child of Love and Understanding and Empathy and Compassion by hitting, yelling, spanking, threatening, and neglecting an absolutely helpless infant.

Here’s an icy thought …………….

* Babies spend nine long months in a very warm cradle, sharing the ultimate attachment to another human being.

* And then the child is born and the parents stuff the baby into confining clothes and lay him down in a cold crib and walk out and leave him completely alone, confined, unconnected.

* And then the parents ignore the helpless infant who cries until his heart is broken by the total aloneness and isolation. 

How could we possibly expect any child to feel safe, loved, cared for, empathic, compassionate, full of understanding for other people?

How can the child possibly grow up normal?

To grow up loving?

We have got it backwards.  The child is born for love, the child already has all the empathy and compassion in his heart.  But we the adults are the ones who kill our children’s souls.

Why?  Why do we do this?

The only possible answer is this: 

* That is how we were raised by our parents.

* And that is how our parents were raised.

* And their parents, and their parents.……

We pass it down from “generation unto generation.”

Children are born with all the love and empathy they could ever need, if only we could let them share it with us.

We haven’t a clue about how to raise a child because we are lacking in love and empathy ourselves.

Until we get a clue, we haven’t a chance of raising healthy, normal, loving children.

Love cannot grow in a vacuum.  Love dies in isolation and fear and anger.

We need to turn the tables.  We need to Umbrella Our Children with our love and respect.   We must love and respect them FIRST if we want them to return that love and respect.



Picasso, the Painter once said: 

“All children are born artists. 

The problem is to remain an artist

as we grow up.”


Treat yourself to a whole page of Love & Empathy & Compassion & Understanding & Children



Suggested Reading:

Perry, Bruce and Maia Szalavitz.  Born for Love:  Why Empathy Is Essential and Endangered.  New York:  William Morrow, 2010.

Gordon, Mary. Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2005.

Bruce Perry:    http://www.childtrauma.org

Mary Gordon:    http://www.rootsofempathy.org

Bradshaw, John.  Bradshaw On:  The Family:  A Revolutionary Way of Self-Discovery.  Pompano Beach FL:  Health Communications Inc., 1988.

Goleman, Daniel.  Emotional Intelligence:  Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.  New York:  Bantam Books, 1995.

Gottman, John and Joan DeClaire.  The Heart of Parenting:  Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.  New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Greenspan, Stanley and Nancy Thorndike Greenspan.  First Feelings:  Milestones in the Emotional Development of Your Baby and Child.  New York:  Viking, 1985.

Karr-Morse, Robin and Meredith S. Wiley.  Ghosts from the Nursery:  Tracing the Roots of Violence.   New York:  The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997.

Miller, Alice.  For Your Own Good:  Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence.  Translated by Hildegarde and Hunter Hannum.    New York:  Farrar Straus Giroux, 1983.