Can you teach Compassion? I’ve seen a lot of dicussion about the idea of ‘teaching compassion’ recently. Lots of it is linked to improving standards in health and social care.
It’s left me wondering, does the need to teach compassion and kindness extend beyond the workplace? Is it something that starts in, and is best suited to home? If you have to ‘teach compassion’ when people turn up for work, it is too late?
I’m not about to offer any solutions here, just share my own experience of what happened with one of my teenage sons. I wrote a post about it ages ago, hardly anybody read it back then so I thought it would be ok to recycle the original.
The quandary I faced over two and half years ago remains the same as it does now. Does having a generous and accepting nature make you naive and more vulnerable to people wanting to exploit you? Is it the right thing to do to teach children to be ‘tougher’, less trusting and more sceptical of people to avoid being exploited? Ultimately do we all need to learn by making our own mistakes, and then decide?
Blimey, that was all a bit ‘Dali Lama’. Here’s the post I originally wrote in September 2011. It followed a trip to a University open day and an incident at Cardiff Railway Station. You can make your own mind up if I did the right thing.
The best £1.47 you’ll ever spend Son.
This week I was sat in a busy railway station with my 17-year-old son. While I was daydreaming he was approached by a stranger who engaged him in conversation.
Almost immediately my son had taken out his wallet and had handed over a pound coin. The stranger continued talking and my son then handed over the rest of the change in his pockets, all 47p of it. At this point I intervened and the stranger quickly left, counting the money.
There was nothing particularly threatening about the stranger, he was reasonably well dressed and spoke in a calm albeit slightly urgent tone. The exchange happened very quickly, probably less than a minute. However it seemed like slow motion as I tried to make sense of what was happening and work out how I was going to intervene without it looking mean and heavy handed.
My son and I sat down and pieced things together. We established that the stranger had said he needed money to catch a train home as he was about £2 short of the fare. There was a fairly embarrassed silence between us for a moment whilst we both though about what had happened.
For me there was a deep sense of worry about vulnerability. Had my son been the victim of a rip off merchant? Had the stranger exploited a vulnerable individual with a well rehearsed script “I need £2 for the train home”. A scam that worked on dozens of people every day?
If it was this easy, how was my son going to cope with situations like this throughout the rest of life? On the other hand, was he doing the right thing, being the Good Samaritan, helping a fellow traveller in distress?
I’ve mentioned this incident to a few friends with teenage children and we end up pondering the same questions? How do kids learn to deal with these sorts of challenges? How do they strike the right balance between compassion and indifference? Is the best way to learn from your own experiences and failures? Can we actually teach them anything or do they need to work it out for themselves?
My sense of anxiety around this was been heightened by my wife’s response, “oh my god, he could be in university halls this time next year, what will happen to him……..?” Calm down, he’ll work it out has been my response, he has to…that’s life (by the way, I never actually tell my wife to “calm down”, it’s just not worth it).
As it turned out my son and I had a very sensible and measured conversation about the incident later on. Drawing on experiences of my own, and the experience of others, we started to piece together an approach / strategy /coping mechanism (call it what you like), for how he might deal with people trying to take advantage of him (in whatever circumstances).
Hopefully this gives him some protection and doesn’t smother the generous and giving side of his nature, which some might think is a bit naive, but I think is one of his more endearing features (by the way he’s 6 foot 3 and built like a Grizzly Bear).
So what’s the PONT?
- That could be the best £1.47 you’ll ever spend Son. A huge piece of learning.
- If people ask for money, think about offering practical help (food or buy the ticket) rather than handing over cash.
- Don’t ever become cynical and indifferent towards people who you could help.