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Be the Change: Nurturing the Capacity for Compassion


Be the Change: Nurturing the Capacity for Compassion

June 12, 2021

This content is provided in conjunction with This Emotional Life’s Early Moments Matter initiative. Early Moments Matter is dedicated to making sure that every child has the best possible chance at emotional well-being. Find out how to receive the Early Moments Matter tool kit and provide one to a family in need.

Co-authored with Lysa Parker

For nearly twenty years we have been teaching and disseminating the message of the importance of the parent and child attachment relationship. We are mothers, we are teachers, we are advocates and we are activists for children and their families.

What we have learned we can sum up very simply: attachment is everything.

The attachment relationship (or lack of) is the pivotal relationship that can determine who we become as adults, how we interact with our fellow human beings and other living things. Whether we feel love, trust, affection, empathy or compassion for others is determined by our early childhood experiences and how those repeated experiences wired our brains.

Neuroscience researcher Dr. Bruce Perry wrote that “The most important property of humankind is the capacity to form and maintain relationships. These relationships are absolutely necessary for any of us to survive, learn, work, love and procreate. Human relationships take many forms but the most intense, most pleasurable, and most painful are those relationships with family, friends and loved ones. Within the inner circle of intimate relationships we are bonded to each other with ‘emotional glue’ – bonded with love.”

“The most important property of humankind is the capacity to form and maintain relationships.”

As parents, we’re given mixed messages:

“Don’t spoil”

“Children are resilient”

“Children manipulate”

“Children need to learn to be independent”

“Toughen up your kids because they need to learn how to live in the real world”

“Children shouldn’t cling, cry, or need…”

“Children won’t remember…”

All of these messages create fear-based parenting attitudes and emotional disconnection. When we become adults, we often treat others the way we were treated. Nearly half of us may learn that love is conditional, transient and painful.

Cutting-edge attachment research, supported by recent studies in genetic and neuroscience, has now made a proverbial crack in the ceiling of myths and misconceptions that we understand or think we know about children. Neuroscience tells us that without consistent early nurturance and loving care, the frontal lobes of the brain will not develop fully, disrupting emotional development. The prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain above the eyes) is the last part of the brain to develop in a child, which happens around four to five years of age. The capacities for empathy, reasoning, impulse control are housed in this section of the brain. Children who have been abused or neglected (even benignly neglected) will often struggle to feel empathy or compassion for others.

How can children learn empathy when no one has empathized with them?

Harsh discipline and negative attitudes toward a child weaken the emotional connections between parents and children. The stress of these experiences will flood a child’s brain with the stress hormone cortisol that can, over time, have significant long-term effects such as aggression, anger and violence. In fact, children who bully other children at school have often been found to be bullied at home by parents or other adults. Harvard researcher Dr. Martin Teicher wrote “Stress sculpts the brain to exhibit various antisocial, though adaptive, behaviors.”

As mothers and as educators, we have devoted our lives to supporting parents and disseminating the findings of all this incredible new research into the hands of parents and child advocates. We don’t have to feel clueless and helpless when it comes to caring for our own children; we don’t have to rely on the well-meaning, but misguided advice of others; we don’t have to feel guilty for seeing the world through our child’s eyes and treating them with the dignity and respect they deserve.

The research is unequivocal in supporting what our hearts have told us all along;   yes, we can pick up our crying baby, and yes, we can love our children deeply and unabashedly, knowing that in doing so we are changing ourselves and the future of our world.

Go to www.earlymomentsmatter.org to learn about attachment and to get an award-winning toolkit that introduces ways in which parents and caregivers can help their children build secure attachments.

Lysa Parker, MS, CFLE, CEIM and Barbara Nicholson MEd, CEIM are the cofounders of Attachment Parenting International and the co-authors of Attached at the Heart: Eight Proven Parenting Principles for Raising Connected and Compassionate Children (iUniverse, 2009) Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker have committed their lives to working with parent-child relationship issues and are the recognized authorities on attachment parenting.  They have been featured in national and regional publications including, Newsday, Child Magazine, Mothering Magazine, Natural Life Magazine, Washington Post, Seattle’s Child, Today’s ParentsWestchester Parent, and Charlotte Parent, as well as many international publications.  They are frequent guests on national, international, and local radio and TV programs. Attached at the Heart won the 2009 Book of the Year Gold Award from ForeWord magazine.

Barbara Nicholson, MEd, CEIM Bio

Barbara is a cofounder of Attachment Parenting International.

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