A Compassionate View of Why Kids Do What They Do

How many times have you said to your child, "What are you doing? Why did you do that?" A million times, right? Their answer is often a blank stare, or "I don't know." You might think they are trying to pull the wool over your eyes, but often they aren't. They usually have no idea what they are doing, or why they did what they did.

I'm not sure if that strikes you as good news or bad news, but it's pretty accurate. Sometimes we get surprised by the wacky things they do, "I can't believe he did this! What was she thinking?" The reality is we shouldn't be surprised at all.  

Child Development 101

When children are born, they have no internal sense of what's right and wrong. As parents, we set external boundaries for them to follow so they know what's okay and not okay. It takes thousands of repetitions over time for them to develop their own internal conscience to guide them to do what is right in how they treat others and themselves.

Our desire is to teach our children boundaries with love and not with shame. We don't want them to feel shame inside when corrected. Shame says, "I am a bad person," rather than "what I did was wrong." When we set boundaries, we want them to come away with the idea that, "That was wrong for me to do, but I'm still a good person, and Mommy and Daddy still love me." This important distinction makes all the difference in the world.

The truth is they are not bad. They're little kids who are learning difficult lessons about right and wrong. We want them to understand, "I was supposed to do my chores and I didn't, so now I can't watch my favorite show" versus "I didn't do my chores, and now I'm a bad person."

When we set healthy boundaries, we want the consequences to teach them about reality. We don't want shame to cause internal self-hatred. Understanding and responding to them with compassion helps us help our children mature, and learn how to respond to their own imperfections with compassion.

Parenting with Compassion

What is compassion? It involves both sympathy and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others, as well as a desire to help. As we parent with compassion, we tune in to the unique needs and struggles of our children. We try to see the world through their eyes, factoring in their age, personality, and unique life challenges.

Our children desperately need to learn how to be compassionate with themselves. They are vulnerable to being hard on themselves because they are constantly learning new things, which involves lots of failure. They need understanding and compassion from us, as well as themselves.

Because our kids are constantly learning and growing, they often feel frustrated and inadequate about their abilities, especially as compared to others. It's common for them to criticize themselves over their academic performance, popularity, looks, and athletic ability.

Learning ways to process their thoughts and feelings, while treating themselves with compassion, builds a solid foundation for the future. Not only will these skills get them through childhood and adolescence, they will help them establish healthy relationships with themselves and others for a lifetime. When kids practice self-compassion, they become more resilient, feel better about themselves, and have a greater ability to handle life's problems.

I hope this helps you see how important it is to understand where your children are developmentally, and how compassion for their vulnerabilities and struggles is so important to help them grow into responsible children who are kind to themselves. Don't forget, our kids aren't the only one who need to be treated with compassion…we do too!

Kim Fredrickson is a licensed marriage and family therapist of thirty-plus years. She loves to teach others about the power of self-compassion from a faith perspective. Kim believes that learning to advocate for yourself with kindness and compassion, just as you would for a good friend, makes living life a little easier. She is the author of Give Yourself a Break: Turning Your Inner Critic into a Compassionate Friend and Give Your Kids a Break: Parenting with Compassion for You and Your Children. She recently retired from her counseling practice when diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a terminal lung disease that developed as a rare complication from the chemotherapy and radiation she received for breast cancer.

After being diagnosed with a terminal illness, she decided to write Give Your Kids a Break as a way to have a positive influence in the lives of her adult children and her future grandchildren. Kim wanted to help them with the challenges of parenting, when the time came. She knew she wouldn't be around to hold her grandbabies, and help her children raise them in person. Originally it was only going to be for them. As Kim wrote, she thought others might benefit as well, so decided to self-publish it. Learn more and read her blog at www.kimfredrickson.com