As a compassionate parent do you feel like you have to justify or defend your parenting practices to others?
Do other people, even family members and friends, watch with disapproval while you talk to your kids?
Do people think your view of children is “too soft” or ineffective to raise kids who can survive, get a job, and be successful in a hyper-competitive world?
Maybe you even doubt yourself and your choices as a parent…
We hear from a lot of people who adopt compassionate practices in their home or classroom, only to discover that their friends, coworkers, family members, or community don’t share their values.
I’m happy to report that over the past few years there is more and more evidence for treating kids with gentleness, coming from neurology, history, psychology, and the natural sciences. The research has become a large and convincing body of knowledge.
Here is a brief but powerful summary of some of the current scientific thinking about compassion, parenting, and how to raise successful kids.
Note: This content is adapted from the documentary “Happy”. It is highly recommended. Not only did it provide a beautiful justification for compassionate parenting, it also presents info about how to have a happy life!
Truth: Humans and animals are naturally cooperative.
Over the course of human evolution, cooperation is more common and more highly valued than competition or “survival of the fittest”. Even animals show evidence of highly sophisticated forms of cooperation.
There is a basic and untrue assumption that humans are wired to compete. We often think the only way we can gain significance is at the expense of someone else.
Some of this erroneous thinking occurs because we believe that wealth and happiness are synonyms. We see materialism as a pathway to happiness. Fighting to “get to the top” appears to be the pathway to happiness.
Because of Charles Darwin, most people assume that “survival of the fittest” is our natural tendency. However, in Darwin's writings the survival of the fittest is mentioned only twice, and Darwin mentions love 95 times! Darwin believes that cooperation is the golden rule. We have the ability to empathize; this is the strongest part of our nature. Being good to others is part of our own survival.
For 99% of human history, we lived in hunter-gatherer societies. In these cultures, cooperation is highly prized and competition is a low value! Our ancestors survived because they learned how to work with, not against, each other.
Primitive cultures agree that the accumulation of private property beyond your personal needs is a mental illness. Nothing in nature takes more than it needs; if it does, it dies off. In nature, something that takes more than it needs is called a cancer.
Democracy plays out in the animal kingdom. From insects to primates, their basic nature is cooperation. For example, in a large deer herd it won’t start travelling until 51% of the group has their head turned toward the watering hole.
Truth: Our brain was designed to be compassionate, understanding, and connected to others.
Being kind to others makes us feel good about ourselves by flooding our brain with the “love hormone”.
Humans, as well as dolphins, great apes, and possibly elephants have mirror neurons. When we see something happen, e.g. we see someone drink water, our mirror neurons think that we also might be thirsty, and we are likely to get a drink of water too. Our mirror neurons don't distinguish between us and others. Conclusion: our brains are designed to naturally connect us to others, and feel what other people feel.
Compassion, love, care, gratitude renew our neurophysiology. Anger and stress inhibit our brain. Anger makes us stupid, by shutting down the most highly evolved parts of our brain. Positive emotions increase clear thinking. Conclusion: we function better in a state of love, connection and understanding.
Deep contentment–and oxytocin, a.k.a. the “love hormone”–comes from helping others, nurturing others, and caring for others. Being kind to someone else is self-reinforcing. It feels good to do something nice for others, our brain tells us so!
Truth: Cooperation and love, expressed in even the smallest acts, makes a difference in our bodies, our brains, others, and in the world.
The human genome project showed us that 95% of our genes we share with the great ape. We share thousands of genes with our pets, the fish and the trees. They are all our relatives.
Gandhi believed that love is a force. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said that the most important thing is critical thought followed by action. St. Francis of Assisi said, “It was easy to love God in all that was beautiful. The lesson on deeper knowledge, though, instructed me to embrace God in all things.”
Love and compassionate action with yourself, in your family, and your community impacts others. Change occurs from millions of tiny acts that seem insignificant. Just as the sea is only made up of tiny drops of water than have come together, small acts of kindness make a difference in our brains and bodies, and those around us!
- Humans and animals are naturally compassionate, not naturally competitive.
- Our brains are designed to help us be compassionate toward others. Being kind to others makes our brain feel awesome!
- Our survival as a species depends on acts of compassion, however big or small.
Compassion has a solid footing in history, animal science, and neurology. If you are parenting with compassion you are in good company. No need to justify, or defend your parenting to others. We only need to look at our brains and millions of years of human history, to see that compassion is what we are built for, it’s how we are meant to treat each other.