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Compassion is solution to parenting puzzle

February 23, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 22, 2017

Lately I have been puzzled. My wife, Lori, and I are blessed as parents of two loving children, Zoe and Adam, who are absolutely wonderful with each other — in a best friends sort of way — almost all of the time. And when they are not, it’s exhausting!

“He’s touching me!”

“She got to be first last time!”

“He’s cheating!”

“She won’t leave me alone!”

At ages 10 and 7, respectively, Zoe and Adam’s behavior is more common than perplexing, as most parents attest. The mystery, for me, is: Why are humans — of all ages — especially during times of conflict, apt to focus more on assigning blame, and less on compassion. Fortunately, reflection on seemingly unrelated events has offered me insight.

Recently, a couple of families in our close circles have been experiencing horrendous hardship. From afar, Lori and I have provided emotional support to each, grateful for the opportunity to express our care. And, after a week when circumstances were especially intense, I was feeling drained — my mind was foggy, my energy low, and I felt irritable.

I started distracting myself by reading online political news, junk food for my unsettled mind. I was instantly reminded of the raging public discourse, in the both local and national media, which I had mostly filtered out in the past couple of months.

Then I began to realize the parallels in these recent experiences. During the run up to the 2016 Presidential election, I became deeply immersed in the campaign issues and outcomes, as did millions of Americans. For many, myself included, the campaign was emotionally intense, and then the outcome left many of us overwhelmed — with foggy minds, low energy and feeling irritable.

That I felt similarly after investing emotional energy in both the election and friends in crisis left me puzzled, until I was reminded that compassion literally means “to suffer together;” to notice human suffering and to feel the impulse to alleviate it.

To suffer with another, for me, is infinitely harder, and generally less appealing, than holding someone responsible, especially if I can blame and find fault in someone else, which I was drawn to do in both the election and with those who were the source of our friends’ struggles.

Then I thought of Zoe and Adam, and the puzzle pieces clicked together. I began asking myself: How can I more intentionally practice and model compassion for them — especially when they are in conflict with each other — rather than assign responsibility, or blame, which I am prone to do.

There is growing evidence that practicing compassion has many benefits, including more caring parenting, marriages, friendships, workplaces and communities. It also makes people more resilient and happier.

So, while holding myself, and others accountable is both noble and necessary for helping right injustices in the world, I am realizing the equal, if not greater, need to practice compassion. My hope is that doing so will both make for more peaceful families, and more civil societies.

For more on compassion visit

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

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