The cape of compassion
Annesha Banerjee considers compassion to be the cornerstone of world peace and prosperity and makes a case for inculcating it, through education, in children
What is the one thing, other than food and shelter, which has ensured and will continue to ensure the survival of all living beings?
While you think of an answer, let me bring forth a piece from a letter which I recently came across, written by a Holocaust survivor. It said:
“My eyes saw what no person should witness: Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education. My request is: Help your children become human.”
Education gives structure to the abstract dreams of a child. It shapes us into responsible and contributing citizens of the world. Advancing technology, digital developments, and breakthrough discoveries have all eased our lives and boosted society, but improved lifestyle doesn’t promise happiness—individual or collective. Now, more than ever, we need to hold on to the values that make us human. And at the very foundation of human existence is this expression of love—compassion.
Last year, while addressing the gathering at an event, the 14th Dalai Lama said, “All seven billion human beings in this world are mentally, emotionally and physically similar and they belong to one community. Oneness is the knowledge that the world needs more of . . . and ahimsa and karuna cannot be revived through prayers or rituals but rather through education.”
Raising compassionate kids
All kids dream of being superheroes with the power to save their cities and the people from evil forces threatening to take over. However, one doesn’t need to be able to jump buildings, fly with the birds, run faster than a speeding bullet, or possess out-of-the-world superhuman strength to change the world. All one needs is compassion.
A friend of mine who volunteered with Teach For India a few years ago shared his experience: “I taught in a classroom of 45 kids living with their families of around six to eight members, all of whom entirely depended on men who fish and women who do housemaid work. Shortage of resources and opportunities was nothing new for them. In such conditions, two things thrive: either rogue attitude or empathy and compassion. There were days when I saw some students carry extra lunch boxes for their friends whose parents couldn’t put a meal on the table that day. Sometimes, the mid-day meal lady would fill up the children’s lunch boxes a second time without questioning because she knew that it’ll be their afternoon meal. Some kids would also contribute some minor stationery for their peers who couldn’t afford it themselves. The kids strived hard to stand out and do things, and hence we tried harder to create platforms and avenues for them to collaborate and support with empathy.”
Compassion is our natural instinct which helps us develop relationships and interconnection with others, eventually helping us evolve. In their innocence, children are unaware of the differences in identities, and it is only later that they fall in line with the divisions of humanity as drawn by society. Although, it is correct to assume that goodness and compassion come naturally to children, it is, but a fact that as a child grows, the feeling of compassion gets lost deep in the corners of their mind. Whatever good or bad that we see today in society is directly linked to the kind of education we give to our children. Going by the current state of the world, one may wonder whether we are just preparing our students and children for jobs or as citizens of society as a whole.
Individual and societal success depends on raising and educating children who care about others. But today’s children have been misled to believe that success is achieved through test scores, material wealth, and personal gain. Sequentially, we can see a measurable shift toward self-centredness at a time when society depends more, not less, on people who give of themselves. Compassion as a part of education can be the first and the most important step towards bringing a paradigm shift in society, which will reap its benefits in generations to come.
But raising empathetic kids who grow into compassionate adults is not easy, especially when various factors in contemporary society work with ignorance, both towards others and about the importance of emotional intelligence. A blogsite, The New Stateswoman, published a blog called “The Death of Empathy: Who is to Blame?” linking empathy and compassion to student behaviour. The essay said, “These students turn into adults of the future, sometimes taking their low empathy levels with them. Some of them become inconsiderate drivers, noisy neighbours, litter-droppers, looters and muggers.” It is essential for children to learn how to channelise their negative emotions in productive ways, resolve conflicts, and be mindful of other people’s spaces. One must remember that compassion, much like a muscle, gets stronger the more it is practised.
Sowing the seeds early
It’s said that when you teach a child to be kind to a mouse, you do as much for the child as you do for the mouse. Children learn how to care for and treat others by watching and listening to adults and peers, and they take cues from the people around them. The development of compassion, kindness, and empathy in the early years is crucial for healthy social and emotional growth. These positive human qualities help children make and keep friends, understand others’ feelings and behaviours, respond to others’ feelings in an appropriate way, and be emotionally connected with the people around them. And so, the primary responsibility falls both on parents and teachers.
Treating with respect those who are less privileged than oneself, sharing their belongings, donating a few of their toys, clothes, or books, and coming forward to help in little ways should be encouraged by parents to nurture compassion among young children. Bullying, teasing, and ragging in schools and colleges is the consequence of a lack of empathy and understanding among children. This lack of acknowledgement of others’ feelings and emotions is rooted in experiences and instances a child encounters during its developing years.
From my own experience, when I was in school, many of my teachers used to make an example of students from our class who were academically weak by saying, “If you don’t study well, you will fall back with them and be like them. Do you want to be like them?” All of us students would laugh and sing back a ‘No ma’am’ jovially. Although this did encourage most students to not be like ‘them’ and boosted class morale, it also categorised students into groups and altered the self-belief of all the students. Biased treatment by the teachers encourages students to mimic their behaviour, thus reinforcing the idea of superiority and inferiority in their mind, which is where compassion fades. Taare Zameen Par, a Bollywood movie, is a perfect example of how teaching with compassion can not only improve a student’s academic performance but also change the course of their life.
Policymakers and educational organisations across the globe are understanding the need for additional training in empathy and compassion in the present education system. ‘Global Game Changers’ (GGC), an online educator portal which offers student empowerment programmes to positively impact school culture and student achievement, has compassion at the core of its curriculum. Jan Helson, co-founder and chairman of GGC, says, “The goal is to show students that giving back is part of who they are and not just something that they do. It then becomes a true, integral part of them and a foundation for their lives to come.” Furthermore, studies have found that children who acted with compassion during the early childhood years—cooperating, helping, sharing, and consoling—had stronger academic achievements later on. “In some ways, it’s common-sense that compassion builds a great foundation of self-confidence and self-value, which will make you more successful,” Helson added.
Empowering through education
“Once children enter into the education system, there’s not much talk about human values. They become oriented towards material goals while their good qualities lie dormant. Education should help us use our intelligence to good effect, which means applying reason. Then we can distinguish what’s in our short and long-term interest,” said the Dalai Lama during the launch of SEE Learning, a compassionate classroom program. “Education of the heart is important, and compassion is the key factor for a happy world,” he added.
One of the major shortcomings of our education system is that it is focussed on the intellectual development of a student through academic instruction. Education is not merely for scoring marks, getting degrees or jobs, or earning a livelihood, but it is about building a good human being. Children should, from kindergarten, be educated about internal human values. Since school time is when children learn their essential value system, and as much as geometry and geography are important to help children pick up occupational skills, social values are needed to teach them how to differentiate right from wrong by developing a strong moral compass.
Although, most parents do an adequate job of instilling a personal value system in their children, somehow, at a larger social level, we have obviously failed. Thus, in the education sector, mindful educators who go beyond academic learning play an increasingly central role in cultivating the necessary social, emotional, and ethical skills among children that are required to lead meaningful and successful lives. Our priority should be to raise kind and compassionate kids, no matter how well-versed they are in their academics. And, while there may be divergent views on the kind of society we want to create, there is no disputing some basics.
Madhuchanda Rao, a former youth development trainer and pre-school teacher at Sri Aurobindo Ashram’s Mira Nursery, pointed out some important aspects of a school. “Schools are mostly focussed on information-based teaching methods, pushing the students to partake in the cut-throat competition, and in the process, the very reason for which children are sent to schools is lost. Parents who have the skills and knowledge can certainly home-school their children. But what is it that you learn in school and not at home? You learn how to co-exist with people, interact with them, negotiate, and make your own place amongst your peer group. Every child is a king or queen in their own homes, but when they go out and meet people, they understands that not everything is going to be served to them. They learn that they are one amongst many and one should be accepting, kind, and compassionate towards all. It is the overall social and emotional development of a child through exposure in a safe surrounding that forms the foundational idea of a school,” said the freelance facilitator who is working with government school teachers in Delhi and Sikkim, training them to cultivate an inclusive and inter-personal teaching environment.
It is strange that many still consider being helpful, kind, and compassionate to be soft skills. Teachers and coaches would agree that teaching skills and creating an environment where students feel safe to take academic risks and feel valued and connected to their community as well as encouraged to take positive action to help others are anything but soft skills. Compassion is a measure of strength and empowerment. And when we empower our children, they become capable of fending for themselves for long.
Steps towards change
Multiple initiatives have been taken across the globe which emphasise on changing the world by educating our children to become inclusive and resilient adults. Demark, a country which, in 1993, introduced mandatory empathy classes in their curriculum, has been consistently ranking among the top three countries in the UN’s World Happiness report over the past seven years and stands as a glaring example of compassion in education. Their curriculum is designed to make children more emotionally and socially competent.
STRAW (Stray Relief and Animal Welfare) is an organisation in India that promotes animal welfare through education. Their ‘Compassionate Classrooms Program’ introduces humane education contents into school textbooks which significantly influence students to develop empathy towards people, compassion towards animals, and care for the natural world so that they can make a difference and bring about a positive change. Similarly, PETA India offers ‘Compassionate Citizen,’ the Indian version of the internationally recognised humane education programme of PETA, ‘Share the World.’ This initiative is designed to help students at their formative age to better understand and appreciate animals.
It is only through inculcating compassion in the curriculum that we can hope that our children create a future in which animals, the environment, and all humans are treated with kindness and respect. In addition, many schools organise donation events and NGO visits for students to help them replace judgment with acceptance, and ignorance with care because compassion makes no distinction between age, ethnicity, gender, or disability. Such initiatives reiterate in the minds of children that compassion drives society to be inclusive and allows all of its members to be fully engaged in life. It is what enables human beings to care about and help each other. And children must remember: A single act of compassion can change a person’s life forever.
A safe future
Today, we are worried about the kind of planet we’re leaving for our children. But it’s also time for us to think about the kind of children we will be leaving for our planet. Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, “Sympathy will have been increased through natural selection and for those communities which include the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”
This small planet is our only home, and if we are to protect this home of ours, each of us needs to experience a vivid sense of universal compassion. It is only this feeling that can remove the self-centred motives that cause people to deceive and misuse one another. Instilling, through education, in our children the skills of emotional literacy, perspective-taking, and developing a moral compass is one of the most radical, courageous, and hopeful things we can do for our future generations.
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