Sunday, August 30, 2009

Seeds of Compassion

The Seeds of Compassion was the title of a week long conference in April of 2008 in Seattle. The conference brought together researchers from all over the country to discuss what research tells us about how children learn to be compassionate human beings. We are all born with innate compassion. We are also born with a set of behaviors and skills that help us learn to trust our families and to be wary of strangers.

As we develop, our awareness of family becomes stronger. Researchers have observed this by setting up experiments with babies: babies between eight months and two year as develop such a strong attachement to their parents that they often will not go with a grandparent or babysitter without howls of protest. This is a biological phenomenon that helps protect children from being carried off by strangers.

Now that we have the technology to study the brain, we know that the continued development of compassion is learned through experience in everyday conflicts and resolution. The innate compassion, present at birth can also be unlearned if the baby watches parents treating each other harshly, without compassion. It is unlearned if the behavior stemming from the baby's developing curiousity is met with punishment rather than redirection.

Here is an example. A crawling baby scoots up to an electrical cord and pullson it. (It does look like an interesting pull toy!) The parent yells, "NO NO! I said NO!" The baby does not know what no means but learns that something interesting happens when he pulls that cord. So he pulls it again and more interesting things happen. By the time he learns to talk he will use the same phrase, "NO NO! I said NO!" when he does not like something with the same loud voice.

A more compassionate approach would be to move the baby to a safer play area and give the baby a safer object to pull. Spending time with baby with the appropriate toys teaches baby that these are the fun and interesting toys for play. (And of course, rearranging the furniture to provide a baby-safe environment will go a long way to helping parent compassionately!)

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