I received this question by email after my last post:
“I think you were right-on in pointing out how parents typically assume selfish motives for kids. You cartoon was just heart-breaking! There’s a lot of heart in your message. How about adding a little more “how-to”?
I think what could be useful to your readers would be to include a paragraph modeling what questions you might ask that get to the heart of it. Would they be questions that guess at motives? And how to phrase questions in a non-judgmental or non-demeaning way?”
Thanks so much for the question! I love answering specific questions that will help someone right away. I’ll use the same cartoon of a child with a broken vase to demonstrate a more compassionate approach.
Here is a sample conversation modeling non-judgmental questions. The words in red are my commentary:
Parent: Oh, no, mom’s favorite vase is broken. I’m sad about that. What happened? (Said in a sympathetic, caring voice)
Child: I don’t know. (Probably true, the kid has no idea how the vase slipped out of her hands)
Parent: Were you hoping to do something with it?
Child: Yes! Nonni said I could get it.
Parent: Nonni said it was OK? (Parent is surprised. Why is the next-door neighbor involved with this?)
Child: She said it would surprise mommy.
Parent: I’m so confused. The vase would surprise mommy?
Child: No! The FLOWERS. (Children can get quite peeved when you guess wrong. A young child thinks that you, as god, ought to just know. Don’t let it throw you. Keep asking.)
Parent: Did you find some flowers?
Child: No! Nonni did. She found a bunch of flowers from somewhere and she said she’d share them with mommy. She said to get a vase.
Parent: And so you went and got mommy’s favorite vase.
Child: Yeah. I wanted it to be a good surprise.
Parent: And then it slipped.
Child: Yeah, I tripped. Can we glue it back together?
I suspect that most people with the following two features could have the previous conversation without much training in compassionate listening: Feature one – that the parent feels relaxed and patient. Feature two – that the parent truly believes that all people are basically good with good intentions.
However, in our culture we are often in a rush, trying to accomplish much more in a day than is physically possible, and are brought up to believe that people are basically bad and have to be punished into goodness. Furthermore, most of us have unhealed traumas that pop up whenever triggering events happen. So for example, if the parent in the above cartoon had been harshly criticized by his partner for not keeping an eye on the child, then a broken vase may mean much more than having to deliver sad news. It may mean shame over not being a good enough parent. It may mean having to listen to hours of critical, shaming language from his wife. Or if the same parent grew up in a household where he was seen as not good enough, then he may be triggered not only by the current shame, but also by a long history of being judged.
When we are triggered, we lose our patience and ability to see someone else’s side. It’s very biological. So the real secret to compassionately querying your child is in how quickly you can deal with your own shame and get back to a sense of well-being. And this ability to return to balance takes practice. Marshall Rosenberg, Byron Katie, Robert Gonzales, Raphael Cushnir, Brene Brown, and many others all focus on ways to enhance self-compassion. Essentially they teach one how to sit with one’s emotions and allow oneself to feel them, while at the same time seeing oneself as innocent and focusing on the dear human need behind all of the emotion.