Calm and Compassionate Children by Susan Usha Dermond

Sep 30, 2013

Sometimes I fall into the trap of labeling my children: I tell people that Aaron is shy, Maxwell is imaginative, and Bradley is aggressive. I always feel a little guilty when I do this because one of the main points that stuck with me after reading ScreamFree Parenting was that labels (even positive ones) can have a detrimental effect on children.

Plus, my overarching, all-encompassing labels usually come back to bite me.

Case in point: Maxwell. I've always claimed that he is my kindest, most generous, most naturally compassionate child. While Aaron is kind because he knows he is supposed to be, Maxwell is kind out of the true goodness of his heart.

Or so I said.

Whether he heard me touting his virtues and decided to prove me wrong or is just going through a new stage and testing his boundaries a little, his recent actions have suddenly made a turn in the unkind (you might label it "mean") direction. While I am hopeful that, at three years old, most of his actions and words are innocent reactions and observations, I still wonder where my kind and compassionate little boy went. I've realized that, as a parent, I do have a certain responsibility to see that he understands the divide between kind and unkind words and to help him feel empathy and love towards the people around him.

So when my education group decided to read Calm and Compassionate Children for September, I thought they couldn't have picked a better month for it.

It's written by Susan Dermond, a teacher and the founder of the Living Wisdom School in Portland, Oregon (a private school that emphasizes virtues and morals and, quite appropriately, kindness). Much of the book is based on her experiences in the school setting, as well as her personal experiences as a step-mom and collected stories from other moms and caretakers.

The book is divided into three sections. The first two are very hands-on and discuss influences within and without the body that contribute to a child's sense of self and ability to reach out to others. Each chapter ends with a list of practical suggestions for application. The third section is mostly about things in the environment beyond our control and how best to help children cope when they are in a less-than-ideal setting.

Overall, I found the suggestions in the book quite helpful. Most of them were not earth-shattering but rather good reminders or new ways to think about something.

For example, I loved the chapter on music. Music has always been an important part of my life, but I've realized recently that I have not made it as much a part of my children's lives as I intended to when I was still single and childless and thinking about my future family. I believe that music has the power to change or influence our moods, but I haven't used that knowledge very much to help my own family. In this chapter, she talked about how music can be used to calm us down or (using different music) energize us.

I noticed this energizing effect a few weeks ago when I was trying to get the boys to pick up the playroom (always an arduous task). I hadn't read this book yet, but I love to listen to music while I clean, so I thought the boys might want to, too. I put on some children's songs I had from the library, and the transformation in my kids was immediate. They began picking up while singing and dancing, and the entire playroom was cleaned up in a matter of minutes.

So when I began reading this chapter, all the behaviors I had recently observed in my kids were confirmed. While I had already seen the energizing effect music had on my family, I hadn't used music as much to try to calm them down. I checked out a couple of her relaxing music suggestions, and I have used those at times when my kids are wired and crazy. I haven't noticed that music calms them down as quickly as it picks them up, but I am willing to keep trying.

Music has once more gained a prominent position in our home, and we are seeing positive results all around. I used to always just listen to the radio in the car, but now I let them choose what we listen to. It keeps them happy for hours, and we haven't had to rely on the DVD player like we used to on longer trips. I've also noticed that if they're fighting or bothering each other, all I have to say is, "Would you like to listen to some music in your room?" and it instantly restores the good feelings we want to have in our home (at least for a few minutes). And, I've also been letting them listen to music at night as they go to sleep, which has definitely helped them calm down and (in the case of Maxwell) stay in their beds.

In contrast, I actually didn't love the chapter on books and reading as much as I expected to. Perhaps it's because reading is already a very well-established tradition in our home, so I didn't pick up anything new to try and implement. Usually though, I like reading about the importance of reading (remember how much I loved Raising a Reader?) because it helps me feel like I'm doing at least one good thing as a parent. In this case, I think my lukewarm feelings in this chapter stemmed from the fact that I was just not that impressed with her book suggestions. She gave relatively few, so I assumed that she saved her very favorites for the list, but they didn't seem that stellar to me. (However, I haven't read some of them, so I will reserve judgement on this matter until I can speak from experience. Anyone have any opinions on Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher?)

In addition to these two chapters, here are a few more points that made me think:
  • "Daily exercise is vital for children to achieve the state of calm stillness. Think of exercise as the inhalation and calm stillness as the exhalation...Lots of movement is essential for a child's emotional health and physical and mental calmness." I see this with my piano students every week: some of them are fine sitting for the entire lesson; others literally need to be moving every few minutes. Reading this chapter has made me more aware of this need for movement and more willing to follow my students' leads for what they need. In the book, she calls these short spurts of physical activity "movement breaks."
  • "It is so easy to disempower children when we are teaching them right from wrong; for example, when we force them to apologize for something when they are still feeling resentful and not at all apologetic. This takes away from them the opportunity to practice apologizing sincerely out of a feeling of regret." I have maybe thought about this paragraph more than any other single paragraph in the book. At first, it was like a revelation to me . . . it sounded so true. But then, I started to look at it differently, and now I'm not at all sure I agree with that statement. For older children, yes. But for my 5, 3, and 2-year-olds? If I wait for them to feel sorry, the moment will be past, and they will completely forget what it was they were supposed to feel sorry about. They will have no experience apologizing and making restitution. I well remember a little boy I knew whose parents rarely insisted that he apologize. Consequently, he just never thought he was in the wrong and didn't learn to make things right. Anyone have any personal thoughts on this? I am fine with letting my kids wait a little while before they apologize but not if they're just going to begin another activity and forget about their behavior.
  • "So often when children are unruly or uncooperative, we correct them verbally; we lecture them; we explain why. And really what is needed is a hug! A little human contact, love, and understanding can often help us release the tension we're holding and relax into peace." I have noticed this with my kids, especially Aaron. If he is melting down and out of control, putting my arms around him and holding him close does wonders for his ability to calm down.
  • At the end of the book, there was a "Calm and Compassionate Self-Inventory" quiz for parents. I took it, and I could immediately see where my weakness was: "I practice patience, deep breathing, and lovingness as I wait for my children to get out of the car, walk up and down steps, or tell me a lengthy story about what happened." Oh, dear. I had to answer the question honestly, and the truth is that I have a very, very difficult time being patient in moments like those. So, something to work on.
The book does have a slight hippy-undertone, as this example demonstrates: "The day of our trip we talked about what it might be like to see so many ladybugs in one place; the class was very excited about it. I led a visualization asking them to close their eyes and imagine the ladybugs, sending them love and blessing any we might accidentally step on." I do believe there is great strength in positive thinking, but sometimes I read some of her statements with a bit of a skeptical smile.

If you feel like you could use a little more compassion in your house, this might be the perfect little reminder for you. It is a short, fast read and makes for a great discussion between husband and wife or among friends. I'm really very glad I took the time to read it.


  1. Sounds like I must read this one and play more music.

  2. I will be adding this one to the to-read list. I love your parenting book recommendations.

  3. This sounds like a good one that I will have to look for at our library. I have never made my children apologize for the same reasons given in the book, but I have always discussed with them why they should feel sorry when they do something wrong like hit another child. And then I tell them that they should apologize if they feel sorry, giving them the choice. I do think it can backfire to force a child to apologize because no one likes to be forced to do anything. I think my children have learned the most about apologizing by watching ME apologize to THEM, which I do a lot because I am mean and yell frequently ha ha. They learn to apologize by seeing other people do it out of sincerity. But to each parent their own way, right?


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