One of the advantages of having many kids is it gives you the opportunity to make every mistake in the book! Probably one of the biggest mistakes we made in our early days of parenting is we were all compassion, no wisdom. Compassion without wisdom is well intended, but in the end counter-productive. If we truly have compassion for our kids and want to protect them from suffering, then our compassion must be informed by the wisdom that understands clearly the only way to truly protect them from suffering is to help them develop within themselves the inner tools necessary to protect themselves.
Compassion is explained as a feeling of we cannot bear to see somebody else suffer. Fueled by a misunderstanding of what this means, we did everything so that our kid would never cry and never have to experience even the slightest problem. But in so doing, we robbed her of the opportunity to learn how to manage her own experience and develop her own capacities to deal with life. It is also crucial that we make the clear distinction between “attachment to our children not suffering” and “compassion.” Attachment to our children not suffering makes our own happiness dependent upon the happines of our child. So as they go up and down, so do we! We need to be a steady pole in their life, not thrown about by the waves of a toddler’s moods. Compassion is a wish to protect others from suffering for their sake, not our own.
An example of how we had compassion without wisdom is putting her to bed. Because we didn’t want her to cry, we would rock her and walk around with her until she fell asleep, and then gently put her in bed. When she would get up in the middle of the night, we would feed her her bottle, rock her some until she fell back asleep, and then put her once again in bed. In the beginning, it worked like a charm and we congratulated ourselves on what great Dharma parents we were since our kid never cried! “She must be an emanation of a Buddha”, we would proudly tell ourselves. But over time, she became more sensitive, we would rock her to sleep, put her in bed, and then she would wake back up again instantly, so we would start over. Everytime she made even the slightest squeak in the middle of the night, back we would go. Well pretty soon, we were up all night, and so was she, so we all suffered. What did we teach her? That she can’t sleep on her own, she needs us to be able to sleep.
We made this same mistake with virtually every life skill. Throw your plate on the ground, we pick it up; throw it again, we pick it up again. What does this teach? Can’t use a spoon without making a mess, we will do it for you until you can. But wait, if you never practice yourself, how will you ever learn to do it without making a mess? Same goes with pouring the milk. Did you make a mess while playing? No problem, we will clean up after you so that you can go do the next ‘fun’ thing. The list goes on and on. All we wound up teaching her was she was incapable of doing anything, and that she shouldn’t try do anything unless she can do it perfectly – but since you can never do something perfectly without first passing through doing it imperfectly many times, she never learns how to do anything. It teaches the way to get what you want is to either cry or be demonstratably incompetent. How does that help? Again, compassion without wisdom.
We also made this mistake with discipline. Kids need limits. Why? Because life requires so many skills and competincies that they just can’t be expected to make the right decisions. Limits enable them to have clear zones where they are responsible for making their own decisions and other areas where we make the decisions for them until they are ready. This enables them to focus their attention on learning the skills of their current level of development. They also provide stability and predictability in their lives, which gives them the freedom to grow. Limits help them develop a clear understanding of right and wrong, do’s and don’ts. These are essential in life. We often fall into either the extreme of “demanding obedience” or the extreme of “allowing anarchy” with our kids, but the middle way is teaching a “healthy respect for legitimate authority.” But when we have compassion without wisdom, we think limits are a problem. Limits make them unhappy because they cry when they don’t get what they want. Oh dear, perhaps we will permanently emotionally scar her if she isn’t able to do whatever she wants. Ridiculous! Compassion without wisdom.
We also made this mistake with dealing with change. Change is inevitable in life. We cannot protect our children from it. Rather, we should give them the skills necessary for embracing and adapting to change. Transitions to new situations, new schools, new environments, even new countries can be difficult. But it is working through that difficulty that our children can learn to grow and thrive in any environment. When we protect our children from change, when we do everything for them, what we are really doing is sending the message to them that we don’t have sufficient confidence in them that they can do it themselves. No! We need to believe in them enough to honestly say, “I know it is hard, but I know you can do it.”
We want to help our kids. But what it took us forever to realize is we are not helping them by depriving them of the opportunity to learn how to do things for themselves. Will they resist, will they cry, will they call us mean? Of course. But we know better. If we cannot learn to accept our children crying, we will never a parent for them. We shouldn’t go to the other extreme with this, such as expecting a newborn baby to feed themselves their own bottle. But if they are capable of learning how to do things, then we need to slowly and skillfully wean them off of dependence on us and give them opportunities to learn how to do it themselves.
Your turn: Describe a situation in which you showed compassion but little wisdom.