Tag Archives: brain skills

Compassion, Not Empathy

In The Yes Brain, Daniel Siegel uses the acronym B.R.I.E. to stand for Balance, Resiliency, Insight, and Empathy. He says these are the skills that we need in order to thrive. His passion for empathy is echoed by other thought leaders in the parenting landscape.

While we often group sympathy, empathy, compassion, and sometimes even pity into one category, they are different emotions that behave differently in the brain.

When we talk about empathy, we are talking about the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. This is the mirror in the brain. When we empathize, we feel someone else’s emotions. When they do MRI scans of people who are trained and asked to empathize, they see the people processing pain. Regions of the brain associated with negative experience light up. This is empathy. We feel with the person.

When we are feeling compassionate, we are seeing people’s emotions, not feeling them. In MRI scans of people who were asked and trained to practice compassion, they see the person experiencing maternal love and decision making. Regions of the brain associated with positive experience light up. This is compassion. We feel for the person.

(You can read more about these studies from the original meditator who inspired them here.)

The part of our brain associated with decision making is the part that studies suggest gets more robust through mindfulness meditation.

In Buddhism, compassion is called karuna. The Buddha warned that there is such a thing as too much empathy (sentimental compassion), but not too much compassion (great compassion).

With empathy, we burn out easily. Participants in the studies mentioned above felt exhausted after empathizing. Feeling others emotions compels us to eventually shut down. We need to regenerate and we do it by cutting off connection with others.

In compassion, we do not burn out. We feel regenerated by the experience because we are feeling positive emotions towards the person instead of negative ones with the person.

Empathy is draining and calls us to do nothing. Compassion is uplifting, pro-social, and compels us to action.

Ajahn Brahm, an excellent public speaker who I highly recommend and from whom I have gained a large chunk of my insights on Buddhism, has an excellent metaphor for how we need to react to aiding others and meeting them in their emotions.

We are dustbins. All of the tough things that our children feel get swept into us. The anger, hurt, anxiety, grief. Our children need our help processing these emotions.

As they get older, they will be able to manage more of them themselves, and will need us less. As newborns, we take all of their emotions and help them to cope. As they get older, they can may suckle their hand in an effort to soothe themselves in certain situations. Older still, they’ll learn how to handle situations with tantrums to get all of their big feelings out. Soon after, they’ll only whine. Eventually, they will know how to talk out or write out their feelings and barely need you at all.

But for now, we are dustbins.

We need to be dustbins with a big hole in the bottom. This will allow us to help others, to be dumped into and onto, without filling ourselves up. We need clear minds to help them solve the problems; not ones cluttered with their emotions and our own.

If we focus on compassion instead of empathy then we will be more effective leaders. In the book, The Mind of a Leader, Hougaard and Carter compile research which shows that leaders who practice empathy get burn out and make decisions that work for the short term in order to relieve themselves, while leaders who practice compassion are able to keep their heads on straight and focus on what need to be done in the long-term.

Focusing on the long term means focusing on our children’s needs, not on their wants. That is what true compassion and true leadership are.

How To Teach Children Gratitude


You imagine your well-mannered child saying “please” when they ask if they can use a ball. He says “thank you” whenever anybody gives him a present. His manners are peak and it reflects so well on you.

But what if these words are meaningless when he says them?

What is your goal with having your child say thank you? Do you want him to develop a deep appreciation for the things in the world and deep gratitude for the people who are kind to them, or to say words that you’ve taught him to say?

Think of all the things that honest gratitude takes. What does it take to feel appreciation towards someone for doing you a favor or giving you a gift?

There has to be an other. This rules out very young children.

Then you have to have a theory of mind: the ability to understand that people feel differently than you (age 3) and think differently than you (age 4 or 5). You have to be able to tease out intention. Why did this person get you this thing?

In Should One Return the Favor? researchers found that around the age of 11, children begin to understand returning a favor as a moral value. Age 7-10, children believe you should return a favor to avoid judgment or because it is what everyone does. Before 7, most children don’t understand you are supposed to return a favor at all.

In adult gratitude, there is an expectation of reciprocity. Doing things for each other is what holds us together as communities, and we don’t want our children to be takers. This is part of the reason we feel so attached to them saying “Thank you.” We want them not only to express this in words, but to feel it deep down and reciprocate. To be productive and valued members of their community.

gratitude infographic thin1

Having token words that we use does not teach a child any of these skills. You can say thank you a million times and not mean it once, and you certainly don’t need to have followed through on any action to pay the person back. So what is the purpose of saying “Thank you”?

I think the answer is to calm the anxiety in the parent and the benefactor. Which isn’t wrong. But it isn’t what our stated intentions are. It isn’t working towards the goal that we say we are.

Will you kids learn to be grateful by themselves, though?

No. This is a skill that can be developed by the parents by fostering the abilities that it actually takes to show gratitude.

This means, of course, modeling. Modeling is always important. Not just when you think children are looking.

But we can do more than that. Modeling doesn’t work for all skills. Dweck’s research on growth mindset has shown this. We sometimes need to actively encourage modes of thinking in our children, as well as avoid inundating them with the wrong kinds of thinking.

On the Your Parenting Mojo podcast—which is exceptional and I cannot rate highly enough; host Jen Lumenlan comes from an RIE perspective and each episode is packed tightly with research about child development and parenting—there was recently a guest, Dr. Jonathon Tudge, who discussed his work on developing gratitude in children and adolescence.

Here were a few of his key points:

Do not say thank you for the thing but instead thank the person. Gratitude is about relationships, not materialism.

Encourage mindfulness: When somebody gives our child a present, ask them how it feels to be given a nice thing that they want.

Encourage empathy: Ask your child to think about why people give them presents, even when they don’t like them. What was the person trying to accomplish?

Encourage recall and reciprocity: Whenever giving a gift to someone, try to help them remember a time that person did a nice thing for them.

Other studies have shown that mothers who talk about internal states help children develop theory of mind, which is necessary for the practice of gratitude.

I highly recommend you listen to that episode here.

Teaching your children to say thank you is fine. It isn’t destructive. In fact, if you are going to do nothing at all or do that, go ahead and teach them to say that.

But there are better tools at your disposal.

Please share this post, because more people need effective tools to teach their children this very important skill.

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Brain Skills and the Changing World

In the past, one of the things that made parenting easier than it is today is that you had some clue of what you were parenting for. Particularly in our evolutionary history, there was a specific environment that you were surrounded by, that your parents and their parents and their parents and as far back as anyone could remember had to be prepared for, and that you would then prepare your offspring for. The amount of possible jobs were incredibly minimal and for the most part, labor wasn’t specified at all—unless perhaps you were a shaman or big man, which was the calling of few.

In more recent history, we also had a good clue of what we were preparing our children for, although less so. As economies got more advanced, we had a lot more job specialization. And while your child wouldn’t necessarily enter into the work-field that you had chosen, it wasn’t a unique situation for them to. Bakers children often became bakers, and we universally raised our daughters to be wives and mothers. There was some range of jobs for men that you could imagine your child entering into when they were adults, many of them being concrete and easy to explain (construction worker, banker, clerk, accountant).

Up until not long ago, we had some idea what kind of society and what kind of world our children would be entering into.

But this is no longer the case.

We couldn’t begin to fathom a fraction of the jobs currently available today, and we aren’t really sure which direction our culture is heading in. In short, we largely cannot begin to construct even a loose approximation of what the world will look like in 10, 20, 30—or, God forbid, 50 years—so that we can train or inform our kids on how to be prepared for it.

In a big way, this puts us at a distinct advantage, parenting-wise, in relation to our forefathers.

This doesn’t mean that we are completely at a loss, and in all reality, we will be training our kids for some of the same things that we have always need to have our human society ready for: emotional agility, social competence, confidence, resiliency.

This is where our parenting needs to focus now, more than ever. Not on a skill-set unique to an exact cultural or economical situation, but on building brain skills. We need children who are ready to respond to a variety of circumstances because they have the inner resources necessary to adapt and overcome hardship.

It isn’t necessarily intuitive how we do that. In the same way we have a harder time training our children for the world because it will be a different one than we grew up in, so many of us will struggle to bring skills to our children that we weren’t raised with. Vulnerability, insight, self-regulation—these are not necessarily things we know how to instill in children, because we do not ourselves necessarily have those skills.

Do we help them with everything they need help with? Nothing?

Do we give them the words they need to talk about their emotions? How do you teach someone to self-regulate?

I think that responding sensitively to your children’s needs and teaching them mindfulness, as well as practicing it yourself, are two of the biggest ways that we can prepare our children for an ever changing world.

Responding sensitively creates a secure attachment, which gives them a stable place to return to and to call resources from both in their childhood, and for their futures.

Mindfulness will allow them to breathe and remember that those resources are available; to take the time to pause, process what is happening, and respond instead of react.

These brings an inner balance to a person, a place from which they can review their outer and inner world and respond intentionally instead of reactively.

Today’s parenting can seem slightly less challenging if we can stop looking for very specific answers for our children’s future and start accepting that in our ever-changing world, we need these sorts of general brain skills—that have always been required, though maybe less so, and never solely so—in order to flourish.