When our first child was born, we realized that the language(s) he learns from us will shape him. He will take language skills from our home with him out into the world. We knew we didn’t want to expose him to blame, shame, time-outs, and conditional language. With the globalization of the world, we wanted to give him tools to truly become a world citizen. To enable this vision, we focused on teaching him to use words of compassion and of non-violent communication. World peace starts at home; however, at the time, we were new to that language too.
Introducing the Art of Language
Using language is a skill and, like all other skills that our little ones learn, it comes naturally through exposure. Even before we are born, we start learning. Babies hear their mother’s voice from within the womb and recognize it immediately after birth. Think of babies that are crying out for their mothers (and fathers) when they are hungry, tired, need comfort or have a dirty diaper. A parent or caregiver responds with love and care and it helps the baby grow. The babies basic needs are met, allowing their brains to grow which, in turn, allows them to learn. They learn that they have a voice; that they are being listened to; that they matter.
About Our Brain
Reptilian brain: The part of our brain that is also found in reptiles. It controls our body’s vital functions and is responsible for the fright, flight, or freeze response.
Limbic system: Also known as the mammalian brain. It is responsible for basic emotions and drives.
Neocortex: This part of the brain is responsible for the higher functions, like language, conscious thoughts and sensory perception. This is fully developed around age 25.
As children and their brains grow, the most important tool parents have for supporting that growth is modeling good behavior. What children see is what children do. As such, immersion is an important opportunity. In our house, we use multiple languages. We are fluent in English and Dutch. We also use other languages, even those that we are just learning ourselves, like Bahasa Indonesia, Italian, Spanish and Sign Language. In our ongoing learning process, we use conversation, songs & music, games, playful learning, our community, books, and television to reinforce these languages. You can read more on Modeling Language Learning and the hidden benefits here.
What is Compassion?
According to Greater Good Magazine, “Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion.”
The Language of Compassion
So what makes the language of compassion different? It is not a “foreign” language because you can use compassion in every language. However, if you are new to it, it may feel foreign.
“World peace starts at home!”
I am assuming that expressing feelings in a gentle way is not something most of us have learned. Learning that it is okay to have emotions, to express them but not to be consumed by them, can be difficult. Controlling anger and the need to blame others is part of the process. Practicing self-control, self-regulation, and self-compassion are also key. It is also important to be your own best friend and use kind words even when talking to yourself. This set of behaviors requires taking a moment to breathe and respond using the neocortex rather than reacting quickly with the reptilian brain. It can be empowering to learn these skills and to teach them to your child. I believe it will make the world a better place when we are able to communicate from our heart and stay in connection with each other.
“They are learning to self-regulate and they learn it best by observing our behavior.”
Challenging Behavior and Compassion
This new perspective also puts children’s behavior in a different light. In our culture, we know the phrase “terrible two’s.” Isn’t that just the phase where our children learn to use their language at the same time as they are becoming aware of their own voice? Did you know that in some cultures there is no mention of terrible two’s? A child can say “no” and that gives them the feeling of being in control. For an outside observer, it can feel or seem like the 2-year old is (irrationally) acting out. But are they really? They are coming to grips with their emotions and feelings and learning to express them.
We, as parents, are learning along with them but sometimes we can get confused, especially when we “feel” the little one is being irrational on purpose. It helps to understand that children are learning, that their brain is developing, and that our role as their parent or caregiver is to have empathy and compassion for whatever developmental phase they are experiencing. They are learning to self-regulate and they learn it best by observing our behavior.
I want to share this video with all of you. It talks about practicing compassion and how to achieve a very happy brain. It helps to understand that the status of your brain is not fixed. Your brain can develop and make new connections with exercise and practice. A growth mindset enables you to believe that even though there are things you can’t do yet, you have the ability to learn new skills.
Learning Together With Your Child
We have found that learning the language of compassion is like learning any new language. You learn a little bit and you practice, practice, practice. Once you reach a new level of mastery, you learn some more, practice, and repeat the process all over again. The more you learn and practice compassion, the more natural and second nature it will become.
Don’t get me wrong. Sticking with a learning process takes a lot of effort and commitment. My husband always refers to the language of compassion as a touchy, lovey, feely language. He points out that it can take a lot of effort to say something rather than to react impulsively. And he’s right. Responding in a gentle, compassionate way takes more effort. Instead of telling a child to just STOP whatever it is that they are doing, for example crying or teasing their siblings, you must dig deeper. Ask yourself ‘’Why are they behaving this way, what is the underlying need or emotion behind this behavior?’’.
As with everything in life, nothing is simply black or white. There are exceptions, for example, unsafe situations such as crossing the street without looking. In these dangerous situations, immediate action is required. Afterward, once safety has returned, the situation can be addressed as a teachable moment using the language of compassion.
The Learning Process in Steps
Step 1: Learn to express empathy and compassion
- The first step is to look at the situation without any judgment. What is going on? Can you describe the situation in unbiased words?
- The second step is to check-in, to feel what is going on inside yourself and to give space to everything you’re feeling and thinking. What do I feel? What are the thoughts running through my head right now? They are all okay! Don’t forget to breathe.
- The third step is to look a little closer, with curious eyes. Wonder why you’re feeling and thinking everything you do. Where is this coming from, what do you need?
- The fourth step is to look at the situation again. What do you think the other person needs? Why is he or she behaving in this way? You can explore why it triggers you. It might be a voice in your head formed from previous experience or a reflexive response. You can do this exploration in the moment or after this moment has passed.
- The fifth step is to respond. In this step, you can express the situation you have been observing, what you see, how that made you feel, and what you need. You can make a request. In this step, you can also ask what the other person needs and together you can work towards a solution. Note that this approach does not only apply to the social interaction with your children but can be applied to everyone you interact with.
“They learn that they have a voice. That they are being listened to. That they matter.”
Step 2: Practice, practice, practice!
To remind myself, I walk around with five hair bands around my right wrist. Every time I don’t respond with compassion, I move a hair band over to my left wrist. It is said that to “repair” a non-compassionate response in a child’s brain it takes at least three kind responses. Therefore, after at least three kind responses, I move the hair band back to the wrist it came from.
Step 3: Model this new language and behavior
The more you practice, the more natural it becomes. As many of you know, children see and hear everything. They will start copying you.
Step 4: Teach
Do role play with your children to set them up for success. Talk to your children when they have trouble solving a problem. Guide them through the steps and help them to give words to their emotions. We use Grok cards for Kids to help them recognize emotions. You might also replay difficult situations and ask your children how they could work (together) to solve it.
Step 5: Again practice, practice, practice.
In this step, you practice together. We use materials from Generation Mindful and Big Life Journal. Generation Mindful has a free Positive Parenting Class and Big Life Journal has free weekly printables available.
Step 6: Check if you have made the new skill your own.
Remember, it is a work in progress and you will experience good days and not so good days. It is important to celebrate your successes, however big or small they may be. It is equally important to reflect on or to mourn what didn’t go as you would have wanted.
Step 7: Repeat steps 1 to 6 until the new language becomes your second nature.
Step 8: Find community.
Find like-minded people who practice compassionate or non-violent communication. As with any language, it is beneficial to expose yourself frequently to the language. Immersion in this new language is the best way to become fluent. This summer I completed a useful refresher course. In the process, I realized that I can’t do this alone and that I don’t have to! I need community and someone that I can talk things through with, that I can learn with and with whom I can celebrate all the things that do go right. The refresher course I took was in Dutch but an English course will be launched soon. You can check it out here.
The Benefits of Using Compassion
What I love most about using compassionate communication is that it allows us to stay in connection with ourselves and each other. You can have arguments and disagreements, but at the same time, you try not to judge the other. Instead, you wonder what goes on behind those words and emotions and where they are coming from. And it’s perfectly fine to ask and check. What someone else says is most often not about you personally, in actuality it says something about how the other person perceives the world.
What do you love most about using empathy and compassion? Leave your reply in the comments.