In each of the three books that I have written these past fifteen years or so, whether they are about reflecting on how we developed our biases, the way we were disciplined, or how we sought attention as children, I conclude with a chapter on compassion. Developing compassion is critical when working with children and families. For when we are able to put ourselves in another’s shoes, we understand them better and are more able to validate their emotions.
Another way of describing learning how to share another’s suffering is empathy. Compassion and empathy go hand in hand, and are necessary for us to develop quality relationships with young children. When I think that most adults treat children the way they were (or are) treated, I can’t help but wonder how adults develop compassion themselves. For, what if they never had the opportunity to practice being empathetic when they were young children? Or, if they hadn’t experienced the significant adults in their lives being empathetic toward them growing up? In Everyone Needs Attention: Helping Young Children Thrive, I write about self-reflection (or self-research, which I also call internal ethnography):
I invite the reader … to get to know yourself better … to learn about how you became who you are, what and who influenced and affected you, but most of all, how the interactions with adults in your childhood made you feel … [I invite you again and again] into a space we often leave unexamined, because we might have put aside emotions that were too uncomfortable to deal with when we were children … When I become more aware of how I tick emotionally, I am able to be more intentional, and have more options in choosing how to behave – not only with children, but, in fact, with everyone in my life … Children benefit greatly from authentic relationships with us … When we are humane to them, they learn to be humane to others. When we allow them to explore their emotions safely, they trust us more, and when they trust us, they open themselves up to learn more and more from us – and also to share some of their innermost feelings with us (Jacobson, 2018, pages 10 & 11).
In my first book about understanding our biases, I termed this kind of self-reflection as a way of confronting our discomfort (Jacobson, 2003). In fact, lately, as we have started having an in-depth look at systemic racism as a nation, I believe that we cannot rid ourselves of systemic racism unless we accompany our efforts with constant self-reflection. Allowing ourselves to become aware of how we acquired our biases as young children from our families of origin can be uncomfortable, or even deeply painful. This means, facing the truth about ourselves, how we feel or how we developed our world view and values.
Always delving into this type of self-reflection personally, recently I have been asking myself: Can I be more compassionate with myself? For if I am not, am I able to have compassion for others? These questions have been on my mind constantly since reading about self-compassion in a book with the same title by Kristen Neff (2012). It has made me think about the critical voices from my childhood that I developed in my brain when I was growing up. For I realize that these early voices from significant adults in my life have stayed with me until now – even at age seventy-one. Our earliest emotional memories are un-erasable in our brains. Many of us were brought up by parents or guardians who were anxious and fearful, and who used shaming as their disciplinary guide – most likely because that’s how they were punished as children themselves.
Becoming aware of how I talk to me about me in my head is half the battle toward becoming more compassionate with myself. This is different from narcissism or self-praise. This is about learning to accept my flaws as part of being human. Back in our childhoods our mind was set a long time ago by significant adults in our lives, who taught us a world view – a way of perceiving the world mostly through their eyes. We learned to survive in our family systems and communities. Our survival depended on doing the right things so that people we cared about would like us. Adults around us taught us what was safe or dangerous through their praise, admonishments and, even, silence. I call my mindset an emotional life script, where I learned to understand reality mostly through my mother’s view of me, but also through my own repeated patterns of behavior that reinforced my script. Rewriting my emotional script, or changing my mindset is not always easy. It is not like surgery where we replace our old beliefs with new values like we do with knee or hip replacements. Change takes time. Some of us welcome it with all its challenges and struggles. Others feel anxious and resistant—even fearful or resentful. All these different feelings are natural if we decide to change our mindset, or rewrite the emotional life script.
As a white privileged child growing up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), I was taught in direct and subtle ways that physical affection with our black African servants was forbidden. Even though my nanny would take care of me emotionally and physically, I learned not to throw my arms around her, hug or kiss her. Years later as a young woman, I returned to Zimbabwe and met my nanny for a reunion. We sat on a bench in the town park to catch up with news about our lives. In an attempt to make up for all those years of an imposed, unnatural distance, we held hands and stroked each other over and over again.
It has always been a struggle to unlearn prejudices I acquired in early childhood. In my late teens, small, seemingly insignificant incidents changed my perceptions forever. For example, I met an American Peace Corps teacher and invited him to stay with us for a while as he passed through Rhodesia. He was on his way to work in Botswana, a neighboring country.
One day he and I gave a ride to a young black African woman who was working at a friend’s home. [He] jumped out and opened the front door of the car for the woman to enter. As he did that, I remember feeling amazed and ashamed both at the same time. In that moment, I realized that I had learned all black African people were expected to sit at the back of the car. [His] behavior showed me that it was natural and polite to offer a guest the front seat of the car no matter who they are or the color of their skin. In those days we would feel liberal or magnanimous if we simply allowed a black African person in our car at all! (Jacobson, 2003. Page 51)
Self-compassion helps me become more aware of why I do what I do authentically and intentionally. If I find myself cautioning children who try to do something challenging, it likely has something to do with how I wasn’t trusted to do things when I was a child. This way, I become more aware of how or why I blurt out things to children, and I am able to choose different responses – more helpful or appropriate for children’s development.
Self-compassion also helps me accept and validate my feelings. Everyone has feelings whether we like them or not – whether they cause us discomfort or not. I might deny them or pretend I don’t feel them, but nevertheless, consciously or unconsciously I experience them simply because I am human. Feelings are complex. They arise when least expected, often when they are in the way of me having a good time, or pretending they aren’t there. And, again, if I am able to validate or acknowledge my own feelings, perhaps I would become more inclined to accept children’s feelings as well. In Confronting Our Discomfort: Clearing the Way for Anti-Bias in Early Childhood, I write about the emotional complexities of facing our biases:
I take my childhood with me into every area of my teaching. [For example,] Feelings of guilt and shame about growing up white and privileged in Africa, for my part in an unjust system in Southern Rhodesia accompany me throughout my life. Time and again I find myself trying to compensate for these feelings. Whenever I am in the presence of brown-skinned people, whether they are from Africa, the Americas or Europe, my discomfort relates directly back to guilt and shame of my childhood. It is a constant struggle of not wanting to be white and privileged any longer but, of course, I still am! At the same time, there is a part of me that really does not want to lose that privilege … Sometimes I am aware of my discomfort and often I am not. When I am aware, I am able to empathize with people different from me. However, when I behave unconsciously, I have no idea how other people feel. The discomfort causes feelings of anxiety and then I am unable to focus on anyone other than myself. I become blinded by my own feelings of discomfort (Jacobson, 2003, page 41).
As I learn more about self-compassion, it helps me become even more compassionate with children, who struggle to understand their emotions just as I do. Adults, who are hard on themselves seem to take out these critical self-expectations on young, sensitive children, who need their help and guidance. Adults seem to be unconsciously repeating over and over again what was done to or for them when they were children. When we learn to validate our own feelings, we will be more inclined to accept those of others. And when we learn that our flaws, trials and tribulations are what makes us human, we will be able to transfer this compassion and empathy toward others. And then those, who are hard on themselves won’t have to take out these critical self-expectations on young, sensitive children, who need our support and guidance.
Jacobson, T. (2018). Everyone Needs Attention: Helping Young Children Thrive. Redleaf Press: St. Paul, MN.
Jacobson, T. (2008): Don’t Get So Upset! Help Young Children Manage Their Feelings by Understanding Your Own. Redleaf Press: St. Paul, MN.
Jacobson, T. (2003). Confronting Our Discomfort: Clearing the Way for Anti-Bias. Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH.
Tamar Jacobson is an early childhood development and education consultant for early childhood programs, organizations, and families. She was born in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and traveled to Israel where she became a preschool teacher with the Israeli Ministry of Education. Jacobson completed a doctorate in early childhood education at the University at Buffalo (UB). As Director of the University at Buffalo Child Care Center (UBCCC), she created a training site for early childhood students from area colleges including UB.
Jacobson is a retired Professor from Rider University, New Jersey, and served as Chair of the Department of Teacher Education for seven years. Dr. Jacobson serves on the Consulting Editors Panel for NAEYC, was recipient of the 2003 Director of the Year Award, National Coalition of Campus Children’s Centers, the 2013 National Association for Early Childhood Teacher Educators (NAECTE) Outstanding Early Childhood Teacher Educator Award, and is a former Fellow in the Child Trauma Academy. Tamar Jacobson presents at International, National, State and Regional levels. She is author of: Confronting Our Discomfort: Clearing the Way for Anti-Bias (Heinemann, 2003), Don’t Get So Upset! Help Young Children Manage Their Feelings by Understanding Your Own (Redleaf Press, 2008), Everyone Needs Attention: Helping Young Children Thrive (Redleaf Press, 2018).
More information can be found at: https://tamarika.typepad.com/tamar_jacobson/