Parent holding a heart in her hands cultivating parental compassion
By Categories: Mindfulness, Parenting3.2 min read
Matt Hersh, PhD

Dr. Matt Hersh holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a specialization in child and family clinical psychology. He is a licensed clinical psychologist and mindfulness teacher in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with a private practice in the Boston area.

Years ago as I was walking to work, I  witnessed a disturbing interaction between a mother and a young child.

This child was running away from the mother (and grandmother) while the caregivers waited, with increasing frustration, for the child’s return. I was across the street, a very busy and loud street. But I clearly heard the shouts and agitated pleas of the mother, “Come back here now!”

The child appeared happily nonplussed by the mother’s beseeching, almost gleeful at this seemingly playful exchange.

But there was nothing happy about this scene.  The mother shoved the child’s empty stroller down and started to run after the child. The child kept running away.

As the mother finally reached the child, she whisked her up into her arms and threw her up on her shoulder almost as if the child were a bag of mulch to be loaded onto a truck.

The mother began to administer two or three swift spankings to the child’s behind. They didn’t appear terribly forceful but they were spankings nevertheless.

It didn’t seem to matter to this mother that she was in broad daylight, surrounded by pedestrians. My judgment grew as I stood there watching this mother react out of anger and impatience.  “How could she do this?” What is she thinking? Isn’t she aware at all of what she’s doing?” The harsh evaluations of this mother flew through my mind and body.

But in the same moment my judgment came to a rollicking boil, so too did my unadulterated compassion for this mother and for all parents who necessarily have to endure such anger, such feelings of impatience, such feelings of helplessness.

In the most raw and genuine way, a feeling that swept over me by surprise, I truly connected with this mother on the street. I felt her pain and her anguish. I too have felt these feelings as a father. I too have been in that same situation – my daughter running from me, whether by defiance or by purely innocent playful intent. I too have been reactive.

Some of you may be thinking now about the spanking. No, I don’t condone the spanking, no matter how seemingly gentle it is. Spanking, whether out of anger and impatience or on principle and premeditated, simply reinforces aggression and authoritarian, top-down parenting. I realize this topic is controversial and that research studies show equivocal findings, particularly depending on cultural sub-group.

But let’s come back to the main point. Let’s come back to this universal feeling we all get. We all become impatient with ourselves and with our loved ones. We all feel that helpless feeling in the face of challenge or strife. Even the most seemingly playful interaction can feel so stressful when we are not in the right head or mood space. Or perhaps we are just used to reacting in certain ways from years of habit.

Whatever the reason for our reactivity, we all experience this.

And we all have the potential to offer compassion to everyone else who goes through such an experience.

And so the practice of genuinely connecting with all those who endure the same things we do can be a liberating and humbling exercise. This can help release unnecessary judgments “against the world” and against ourselves.

We can actually become kinder, happier, and more self-compassionate when we make a habit of purposefully acknowledging and honoring the universal suffering in our lives.

Of course we still might want to address our own sources of reactivity so that we can kindly put a stop to needless stress, anger, and helplessness. This will not only benefit you in countless ways but also every single human being on this planet with whom being you interact.

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