Some made Styrofoam tents with four cut-out flaps, others colored class bikur cholim (being there for the sick) phone lists. The rare few even made cardboard welcome mats.
Whatever project young Jewish children made this past week, the lesson was the same: Avraham and Sarah did chesed (loving kindness), and so should we.
From the time they are young, we teach our kids to show kindness and compassion to other people, but we say little about showing that same compassion toward themselves. Yet, self-compassion is an essential ability that affects our children’s healthy emotional development and psychological well being, and that every parent can help their child to build.
What is Self-Compassion?
Having compassion for yourself is pretty much the same as having compassion for someone else. To have compassion means that you notice that a person is suffering, and not turn away. It also means that you let yourself be moved by the person’s suffering to feel warmth and caring—instead of pity or judgment—and the desire to help. Having self-compassion means acting that way toward yourself when you are having a hard time, or if you mess up or notice something about yourself that you don’t like. It means, instead of telling yourself to “deal with it” or “be strong,” acknowledging that things are hard. It means, instead of harshly blaming or criticizing yourself, you can recognize that you are imperfect just like everyone else, and that it’s just as acceptable for you to be that way as it is for them.
Self-Compassion is Not Self-Esteem
Self-compassion should not be confused with self-esteem. Raising children to have self-esteem means doing whatever you can to make them feel good about themselves. The problem is, that parents who do that put too much emphasis for their children on evaluating themselves, and the children often end up egotistical and never feeling like they’re good enough unless they’re better than others. Children who are raised to be self-compassionate are no more likely than others to have those negative outcomes, but they do benefit from a large number of positive ones. Studies by University of Texas Professor Kristin Neff show that people with self-compassion are happier and less likely to be anxious or depressed. They are more curious and more connected, more optimistic and less afraid of failure. Self-compassionate people are also more likely to be intrinsically motivated to learn; they are driven by growing and learning more than grades and appearances.
Four Ways to Encourage Self-Compassion
Fortunately, this is a trait can be learned. Here are three ways in which we can encourage self-compassion in our children:
1. Teach Them Self-Kindness
We can’t listen to our children think, but we can listen to what they say. The way kids talk reflects what they think about themselves. By listening to our children’s words and helping them to replace negative, self-defeating statements with more reasonable language, parents can help influence the way their children think. For example, when we hear one of our kids say, “I’m so stupid!” we can say something like: “That’s frustrating, but saying you’re stupid just makes you feel worse. How about saying ‘I’m doing my best and I’ll keep trying’?”
2. Discipline with Compassion
Children develop internal models of how to respond to their failures and success based, in part, by how their parents do. When parents routinely ground their kids for months or use other extreme forms of discipline, they teach their children that when they do something wrong they need to treat themselves harshly, without giving them any tools or instruction for doing better the next time. Reasonable consequences that arise naturally because of something a child does, or that are logically related to what the child did, result directly from choices children make about their behavior. They help to empower them to make better choices in the future, without knocking them down.
3. Everybody Hurts Sometimes
We all have bad days, and we all suffer at some point in our lives. When we interpret our suffering as a failure or a punishment, that makes us feel as if we should have been able to avoid it, and only leads us to blame ourselves some more. As much as we would love to shield them, parents need to give kids the realistic view that life has both ups and downs. We appreciate the good, but we also have to accept the bad. Children need to learn that they can handle tough situations and unpleasant feelings and still be okay. They also need to know that sometimes they won’t be able to get through something all by themselves, and that it’s alright to ask for help.
4. Loving-Kindness Meditation
Helping yourself will greatly help your child. As I mentioned in my IGTV video that can be found on Project Proactive's Instagram account, you can try out this meditation (click here) to help strengthen your own feelings of loving kindness and connection toward others. Modelling is one of the best parenting tools.
The Torah (Bible) tells us to treat each other with the same chesed, loving-kindness, that we show ourselves. The Torah takes it for granted that we each treat ourselves with kindness and compassion, so much so that it uses that chesed as the model for all chesed. As we teach our children about the two great models of compassion, Avraham and Sarah, let’s not forget to give them the gift of the other chesed, self-compassion.
By Rabbi Bin Goldman, PsyD