Can you teach compassion and kindness? “The best £1.47 you’ll spend Son”

Can kindness in a Grizzly Bear be exploited?

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?

  1. That could be the best £1.47 you’ll ever spend Son. A huge piece of learning.
  2. If people ask for money, think about offering practical help (food or buy the ticket) rather than handing over cash.
  3. Don’t ever become cynical and indifferent towards people who you could help.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

7 Responses

  1. Well Chris. 🙂 It just so happens I was thinking about compassion this morning and think yes it can be taught if the willingness to learn is there. it’s an internal process to my mind. it begins with the self. So anyone teaching compassion would need to help others feel compassionate towards themselves.

    I believe it relates to failure in that we need to accept the fact that as individuals we are flawed, in fact beautifully so. We need to learn to love ourselves not despite those flaws but because of them. Once we do that and become compassionate towards ourselves we ‘become compassionate’

    Perhaps if we teach children to accept their flaws and encourage them to see the beauty in them they will become compassionate towards themselves and others and as they grow, their compassion may even help develop the resilience they need to see them through to a balanced adult life.

    Nice post by the way :).


  2. amcunningham

    Do you think it was a scam? If so I am always taken in by such things. Have helped a few people out who have asked me similar in the few months. I know this is a situation that I could end up in myself so I always hope that I will treat people the way I’d like to be treated.

  3. My first reaction to your blog Chris has been what if I had been in the other passenger’s shoes. Wouldn’t I have wanted to be treated like he had been! The answer is surely yes. As long as your son felt safe and wanted to help why not?

  4. Interesting reflections on the basic question, can you teach compassion? Well of course you can’t. Compassion is not like frying an egg which you certainly can teach. It’s perhaps more a question of whether compassion can be leveraged?

    Of course many people don’t realise that the words ‘compassion’ and ‘patient’ share the same basic root. It means to suffer-with someone, a deeper notion than empathy, which is to understand or relate to, the feelings of others. The psychology of compassion is rather fascinating (and this is going to sound wrong), particularly in women. I’m not an expert here, but compassion is a response genetically predisposed for good parenting. When little ones are hurt or in pain and unable to articulate it, nature steps in. Parents (mostly) have an overwhelming sense of compassion, of suffering with the baby and therefore an instinctive will to reduce the suffering of the baby and in turn that of oneself. It keeps the genes flowing and Women are better at it, not by virtue of cultural stereotypes, but that of genetics and endocrinology!

    But here’s the ticket; having a little cynicism in your soul keeps you safe. The stereotypes that so quickly jump to mind in any given situation are bloody valuable in assessing the threat of any given situation. Don’t go down the dark alley with a bunch of dodgy looking hooded lads at the far end. Would you feel the same way about walking down the alley with a bunch of tailored suits at the far end. You make up your own mind; where I come from that last lot are more likely to be the drug dealers!

    This ambiguous guessing of the motivation of others without context is the same basic underpinning psychological mechanism as compassion, where the stereotype evoked is one of genuine suffering. The ambiguity can be manipulated, mostly by telling a story of the context that confirms the stereotype as true. Cynicism is simply not accepting the motivations others at face value.

    So I think ‘compassion’ is literally suffering the fate of all Zeitgeist novelty, meaning all sorts of things to all sorts of people. The ‘teach’ bit makes me nervous because of its deep religious connotation, whereby compassion is used as the mechanism of God to measure worthiness for redemption. It’s in almost every religion to enable those at the top of the dogmatic hierarchy draped in silk, to explain why their fabulous God allows so much suffering in the world. In various mystical messages “it’s good for you, don’t solve the problems keep suffering and you will be rewarded, no not in this life, in the next one”. So teaching compassion sounds really scary, open to manipulation and ripe for a touch of ethical gaming.

    So how to leverage compassion! Well it sounds to me like you’ve already worked that one out. The trick is to turn the stereotype into a heuristic. The difference is a heuristic is based on knowledge and experience. It comes with a series of questions that help to affirm the true nature of the situation you’re in. Is the old man asking for change a scheming drunk, or is he lost and confused. Whichever pattern jumps to your mind first, don’t beat yourself up over the ethics of your subconsciously generated stereotype. Have in your mind the right couple of questions to ask in the situation, first to keep you safe, then to test your assumptions, then to act in a socially helpful way. That is what I would want, someone to help, not suffer with me. The help bit takes experience, over time, out in the real world whether you’ve got role models or teachers or neither, (which may take you a little longer).

    I always keep some small change separate, in an outside pocket, for just such occasions.
    I do like this revising your own old ideas malarkey. Marvellous!

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