Teaching children compassion

My brother’s close friend died yesterday. It wasn’t a shock in the sense that he knew it might be coming, but  it was deeply shocking, like kinetic energy rippling through your body and across the earth’s surface. Death is so big and too hard to understand. You blink hard, trying to see it better, but clarity doesn’t come.

“Why are you crying?” asked my daughter.

“I’m sad. Your Uncle’s friend died today.”

“He’s not coming back, ever?”

“No. Not ever.”

“Like my fish. But it’s okay, he can get a new friend, can’t he?”

She’s four, so her understanding of death is still forming, as is her understanding of her beloved Uncle’s pain and sadness.

#Compassion is trending, according to one of my favourite media sites, The Hoopla. Thousands of people gathered on Sunday night, lighting candles for Reza Berati, the 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker who was killed on Manus Island last week. Instagrammers and Twitterers were hashtagging the peaceful protest #compassion and #lightthedark.

Compassion is the candle you light in your heart for somebody else. You hear about somebody’s pain or sadness, and you light the little candle. The warm flicker reminds you of your own sadness, and pain. You go to a place where you once felt the same way. The candle is our humanness, and our ability to connect to other humans.

It’s easier to light the candle for those who are close, like my brother. Not much makes me cry these days, but his pain does, because I love him.

There is suffering, death, sadness and pain walking on all corners of this earth. It lingers in the corner of houses and sleeps on cold hard floors. With more than seven billion people in the world, our little hearts aren’t big enough for all those candles, so we light one for those closest to us – for the pain we can see and understand.

Occasionally a global story like that of Reza Berati’s touches us deeply and the candle flickers.

I find myself telling my daughter about the stories that do affect me. Like the lady who locked her children in the car, with the heater on. She overhears me telling my husband the story, and asks what I am talking about. I end up telling her, then regretting it because she’s too young to know such suffering. Also, she doesn’t forget a thing. Two days later, she is still asking me about that woman who left her children in the car, and wants to know if the children were okay.

In theory, I worry about telling her these things. But in reality, it only seems to open up her little mind and her little heart. She wants to understand why bad things happen, or how someone felt. She’s particularly interested in children, because, well, naturally, she’s a child, and connects best to stories she can identify with.

Syrian Conflict Unicef

I haven’t told her about the Syrian conflict, or other huge global tragedies. I can’t, because I can’t even understand them myself, and I end up turning my attention to things that are more familiar.

But the millions of people affected by the Syrian conflict shouldn’t be ignored. Hundreds of thousands of children are growing up knowing nothing but bloody war and death. Many don’t have clean shelters, or food. So many children are suffering.

Maybe I can’t ever get my head around this, or expect to be able to help my daughters understand the extent of this suffering. But I can choose not to look away. I can answer my daughters’ questions when they have them, cry in front of them, and talk about what suffering feels like. I am not afraid of that. After all, I want them to carry candles of their own, and feel that little flicker of warmth and humanness.

Please visit UNICEF for more information about how you can help.

You can also find me over at FACEBOOK.

Linking with Essentially Jess.

  • Lee-Anne

    An eloquent post about an important subject. 🙂

  • LydiaCLee

    I wish compassion was trending…

  • Renee at Mummy, Wife, Me

    It is hard to know how much to share with your children and when. A woman across the road had her house burn down recently and my three year old talks about it constantly asking if she is okay, where is she living, what she will eat etc. As parents we need to model the way for our kids. When they see us showing compassion and watch us interact with others, they will learn. I am very careful about how much I tell my three year old because she is so sensitive.

    • Modelling really is the most important thing, I think Renee. I didn’t really spell it out in the post, but I think it is.
      Yes, our little sensitive souls need to be protected from some very horrible truths xx

  • It’s a tough one, I talk about many tragedies but I’m not sure my children have the emotional maturity not to associate such things with their own lives and think it’ll happen to them. I don’t lie but I censor. Just as I haven’t told my 4yo he’s having surgery next week, kids have no definition of time and what he doesn’t know about hospitals and operations he’ll make up and that’s scary! Lovely post Zanni and sorry for you family’s loss x

  • Bec | Mumma Tells

    Miss Two certainly does not grasp the complexities of sadness, although she’s learning. She will occasionally come to tell me that she is sad, and a “big hug” will make her “feel better”. But then other times the word ‘sadness’ is a game – “I like to make Mumma sad.” I know I shouldn’t feel hurt by this, but it makes me want to try harder to help her learn and understand. X

  • Kids have an instinctive nature for kindness and compassion I think. So important that they don’t lose it as they grow up in a jaded world.

  • It’s so hard, I definitely censor myself when talking to my son. He’s at that age where he is very aware of what we say but lacks the ability to process. He sees so much good in the world that I dont’ want to change that just yet.

  • Such a beautiful post, Zanni – you write with such great compassion and warmth. I struggle with talking to my children about this stuff too. Miss 9 is now old enough to be told a lot of things, and I try to explain current events to her because I think it’s important she understands how fortunate she is and how imperative it is for us to use our position of privilege to help those who, purely by accident of birth, don’t have a life like ours. I only hope #compassion keeps trending in this country because it’s been a long time in the wilderness.

  • It is a tough call what to say and when. I once spoke to a child pyschologist who told me children only ask the questions they are ready to hear the answers to. Be careful to always answer honestly but don’t tell too much more than they ask on these issues. I am sure your little one will grow up with a compassionate soul. I am glad that these issues are starting to get some social media awareness.

  • A lovely post Zanni. My kids grew up with the story of Sophie Delizio who was horribly burned in a fire at her child care centre. When they were being selfish or wanting too much we would always discuss how grateful we were for what we had and how tough it must be for Sophie. They still refer to her now that they are teenagers. Compassion for others is a wonderful thing to share with your children Zanni 🙂

    • Oh, that sounds likes such a huge event in impressionable little lives. How meaningful that she still lives on in your perspectives. x

  • Rebecca Thompson

    What a beautiful post. I find it hard to watch or talk about the hurt and horridness that abounds in the world.
    I have had to explain to my son why I am crying because we are going to see Poppy in the hospital and how very sick he is. I’ve had to talk to him about the recent loss of our dog. It seems never ending and I don’t want him to have to go through all this. But we all have to and if I can ensure he has compassion in his heart then, talking about these things can only be a good thing.

    • Yes…it seems to be for us anyway Rebecca. Children have amazing capacities. x

  • The Plumbette

    My three year old asks questions and I answer honestly as much as she would understand. There is so much hurt and death and sadness happening in the world. In a child’s eyes no one should be hurt.
    I loved this post Zanni. It really resonated with me.

  • Lovely post Zanni. xo I have donated to Unicef for this cause already, I think it is a good one.

  • AParentingLife

    It is great that writers like yourself take the time to share stories like this. Finding the balance in what we should share with our children. One the one hand they don’t need to know it all but nor should they be sheltered either.

    leaving some fairy wishes and butterfly kisses from #teamIBOT

  • There is so much tragedy and suffering that demands more of our attention, beautiful post Zanni x

  • Tat

    I’m different in a way that I find myself telling my kids about global tragedies as opposed to the individual ones. The fact that the tragedies are way beyond my comprehension makes it in a way easier to tell the story plus often there is something we can do like make a donation of money, or toys, or something. Stories of people mistreating their kids I find too hard to handle, it’s like a screen pops up in my head with the whole visual interpretation and I end up not sleeping afterwards… so I try to avoid this type of news altogether.

    • Mmmm, this makes complete sense to me Tat. Some stories don’t bare thinking about, let alone telling your children about. x

  • I think we need to simplify things as best we can and teach them gently. It’s not easy but we also can’t shield them from tragedy too, somewhere in between lies the answer.

  • Emma Fahy Davis

    I wish I hadn’t clicked on the link about the two little boys 🙁 And I’m sorry for your brother’s loss.

  • Wow so beautifully written Zanni really pulled at my heart strings. I find myself answering all my boys questions of the world no matter how big I just use smaller words he will understand. I wonder if he is learning compassion from me and then out of nowhere he asks me If I am ok…

  • TeganMC

    It’s so hard finding that balance of sheltering them from too much loss and teaching them compassion. Some days I want to wrap my son up in cotton wool and never let him out of the house but I know that the world doesn’t work that way, that I would be setting him up for disaster. I think it needs to be a constant conversation, letting them know that it’s ok to feel overwhelmed, that it’s ok to feel sad about it but that we need to talk about these things and not keep it bottled up.

  • Lucy @ Bake Play Smile

    How hard to know what to tell her and what not to. Kids are so inquiring but you certainly don’t want to worry them either. It’s awful the conflict that is going on at the moment. I just feel so sorry for everyone affected. xxx

  • I often struggle with this Zanni – how much do i protect my children from? But the truth is I feel pain of those around me and I show it so it is only natural that my children will be curious. I try to tell them as much as I think they can cope with because I know that empathy starts at a tender age. You wrote this so beautifully hun and I am so so sorry for your brothers’ loss and for your pain xx

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