Teaching Your Child Self-Compassion
The other day during a session with a 14-year old student who was struggling with a particular class in school, I asked her a simple question: "Have you given yourself compassion about this?"
The question surprised her and she didn't know how to answer. I explained to her that she could give herself some space to feel her struggle, and to know that it's okay to struggle, that it's a normal part of life. I encouraged her to send herself some love and understanding.
Seeing her response to my question and suggestions leads me to believe we have a lot of work to do around helping kids care for and love themselves, and a fantastic way to do this is to teach them self-compassion.
It is important to separate self-compassion from self-esteem. Kristin Neff, in her excellent TED talk, discusses the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion.
She defines self-esteem as "a global evaluation of self-worth, a judgment: am I a good person or a bad person?" She argues that in the US, to have self-esteem we have to feel special and above average and simultaneously see others as less than. This is problematic in many ways, including our current bullying epidemic as well as the racism, homophobia and Islamaphobia rampant in our schools.
In the end, self-esteem doesn't really help us accept ourselves for who we are and instead sets up unhealthy competition and can even lead to narcissism.
By contrast, Neff says self-compassion is "a way of relating to ourselves kindly, embracing ourselves as we are, flaws and all." It gives us a more complex view of ourselves and helps us see that everyone has flaws, and that's okay.
So often, we are harsh with ourselves, sometimes even nasty. Breaking his habit can lead us to have more patience, softness, and love toward ourselves and learning how to do this at an early age is so important. As Neff points out in her talk, self-compassion leads to better mental health.
One way to teach your child self-compassion is to give them compassion when something is hard. If they come home with a failing grade, tell them you know how much that probably hurts them, and tell them you still love them, despite the grade. Ask them what you can do to help. They will be more motivated by your support than by being criticized or told you are disappointed in them. As they see you giving them (and yourself) compassion when times are hard, they will learn how to do this for themselves.