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Learning Compassion

My husband and I are about to be first time parents, so we are trying to soak up all of the wisdom we can on parenting. Some of the information out there is a little questionable... When I was looking for online parenting classes, I wanted classes that I, as a scientist, could trust. In my search, I found a 5-week course offered by UC San Diego entitled “The Science of Parenting”.    

The title alone got my attention. Unfortunately, there’s no how-to manual of exactly the right choices to scientifically be the best parents. This, instead, was a course mostly focused on behavioral psychology. The instructor, Dr. David Barner, explained many different scientific studies on the development of children: how their young brains process math versus language, how much influence parents have, influences of family structure, etc.  

I learned a lot from this course, but one of the most fascinating topics he talked about was compassion. As with many of the topics, he looked at scientific research on whether level of compassion was: innate in all children, determined by genetics, or taught through parents and other influences. The findings were fascinating.   

As with most pieces of developmental psychology in children, the answer was complicated. The current research shows that a level of compassion is innate in all children, but that in the first few years of life, kids have a very hard time being able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.   

Although we often view compassion as the ability to understand other people’s pain, there are a few behaviors that demonstrate some sort of compassion even when children can’t do this. Of these behaviors, the one seen the youngest is sympathetic crying.

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When one baby hears another baby crying, they will often begin to cry themselves. This seems to be a sign that babies, before hardly any parenting has happened, hear crying, know that crying happens when something is wrong, and thus cries itself because something must be wrong. Most likely all of this is reflexive and not actually thought about, but unfortunately babies are notoriously bad at being able to express their emotions in words that scientists can more thoroughly study. Obviously, this makes studying it any further quite hard.   

Once toddlers are able to talk, more studies can be run. One of the most thorough studies on these toddlers' levels of compassion gave the toddlers a scenario and asked them a question.   

Scenario: Sally and Judy are in a room together. Sally has a doll. Also in the room are two boxes. While Judy is in the room, Sally puts that doll in box #1. Judy then leaves the room and Sally switches the doll to box #2. Judy re-enters the room.

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Question: What box does Judy probably think that the doll is in?   

The large majority of the toddlers thought that Judy would say the doll was in box #2 because THEY knew that the doll was in box #2. They were unable to put themselves in Judy’s shoes and understand that Judy had only seen the doll being put in box #1 and had no reason to think it had moved.   

Because of this inability, Dr. Barner expresses his belief that in raising compassionate children, teaching them the golden rule is very important. (Treat others as you would like to be treated) Although they can’t figure out how someone else feels, they CAN figure out how they themselves would feel if they were in the situation.   

I would like to say that once our brains are fully developed that all of us adults are experts of compassion. You and I both know that isn’t true. We all know people who seem completely indifferent to the plight of others. We ourselves make decisions all the time that do not take the feelings of others into account.   

This truth was not lost on God. He is all-knowing, and that means that He knows that although some compassion is innate in all of us, we definitely need guidance in doing it well. The Old Testament has numerous stories of a compassionate God hearing the cry of the needy.   

Then we get to the New Testament where Jesus is instructing His followers and we hear OVER AND OVER AGAIN how important it is to care for our brothers and sisters. He reemphasizes the golden rule and takes it one step further:

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Then He goes on to give concrete examples of living a compassionate life by explaining the corporal works of mercy to them. (feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, etc.) He tells His followers that what you do for those here on Earth, you do for Him.

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To really seal the deal, Jesus SHOWS them how to be a compassionate person. There are two blind men on the side of a road Jesus is walking who cry out to Him. The rest of the crowd rebuked the blind men and told them to be quiet. They ignored these men’s suffering. Jesus, on the other hand, stops and asks what they need, then gives it to them.

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As much as we are all a part of the body of Christ, it is often difficult for us to think of our actions in reference to the whole body of Christ. This week I encourage you to change that. I encourage you to intentionally act with compassion more. As you’re going about your day, as you’re doing any mundane task, think about how this affects others. Think about how others might feel. Think about how you as a Christian are to act with that compassion. Then I hope that you will spend some time in prayer thanking God for his guidance in compassion, and for him developing our brains past infancy so that we are truly able to think like others and act with compassion in our hearts.