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What Children Can Teach Us About Compassion

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I take a kiddo to lunch every week. 

At the Tennyson Center for Children’s day treatment and residential program, it’s presented to kids as an opportunity to get off campus as well as a reward for particularly safe behavior and healing progress. 

They seem to value the opportunity and inquisitively approach me most days to see if they are “on the list,” telling me that they are being “really safe.” 

The list is long because lots of kiddos here are healing, progressing and being safe.

The lunches are pretty casual and usually quite silly, as there is no “treatment” of any sort as we down chicken, pasta or a burger. The kids pick the restaurants, and seem to be branching away from McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A as word has spread that it’s true—they can eat anywhere they would like.

It’s a promise we keep for these kids whose paths have been littered with broken promises.

Conversations lurch seamlessly from sports to hair styles to new brands of shoes and cars. They drive the conversations and have a lot to say. And they rightly feel special, often asking if we can stop by Walmart on the way back to campus as they have also earned allowance money and it’s burning a hole in their pockets.

Invariably they will start talking about other kids in the Tennyson program. I often find myself smiling as the words expressed, regardless of the age of the teller, are always positive.

They talk of how others are “getting better.” They speak of something they learned from another kiddo who is “being safe” and how so-and-so shared her snack with a kid who was still hungry. They lobby for a certain boy or girl who should come to lunch next week. They speak with great sincerity and insight, and it is never prompted by me or the therapist who joins us for a meal. It bubbles outward freely and always oozes compassion. 

I had a young 9-year-old boy tell me of a girl in his class who is working so hard, who has come a long way and who is sometimes not seen. She wrestles with her trauma quietly, and he always looks at her when another kid is “not being safe” because he knows she will “be quiet.” He told me that he is sometimes sad when he can’t go stand with her in these moments as he does not want her to be alone.  The therapist and I simultaneously uttered a “wow” as the boy simply dipped his french fry into his ketchup and switched the conversation to how his burger was getting cold.

This is all especially heartwarming because most of these kids have experienced very little compassion on their journeys. How they are almost fearless in their giving of it is a lesson I think we can all learn from.

Every few weeks I also make dinners with them in the residential cottages. It’s messy and fun, and the final product often resembles what we intended but tastes can vary considerably. One night there was a bit of a mix up so I actually brought pre-made and steaming hot pizzas to the cottage with the youngest kids at Tennyson—the 5-to-8-year-olds.

A door opened halfway through the meal and a family, who just completed family therapy, entered with their child who lives with us. The smell of cigarettes filled the room as they entered, and it was overwhelming. The mom and dad are trying for sure, and they do love their child very much, but the absence of teeth in their smiles signaled the personal battle they are trying to overcome—and the underlying reason why their child is with us instead of at home with them.

Their kiddo likes plain cheese pizza and the others have saved the last few slices for him. The mom sees the pizza, grabs the last slices of plain cheese and kisses her son goodbye as she and her husband bolt from the cottage.

It happened in a glance, and frankly was so quick and shocking that I failed to respond as the door slammed shut. All the kids looked stunned, and they all looked at their cottage-mate with sadness as it dawned on them that his favorite kind of pizza was gone. 

Just then, a girl picks up her slice of cheese pizza and puts it on the boy’s plate. Then another boy follows her lead and now he has two slices. The generous girl and boy then walk up and grab the last slices of pepperoni and return to their seats to finish their meal. The boy whose parents just left takes his plate with cheese pizza and utters thanks as the boy who picked up a pepperoni slice starts removing the meat from his new pizza—he hates pepperoni, but compassion compelled him to give up his preferred type.  

Many healing kids will dip into a wellspring of compassion as easily as they dip their chicken finger in barbeque sauce. It’s instinct for them, and they haven’t developed any judgements about what it means to be compassionate. And because many kids here have walked similar paths they’re able to tap into an almost limitless reservoir of empathy for those they meet each day.

But empathy and compassion are different members of the same family, and it’s when the action that distinguishes compassion from empathy is unearthed that these kiddos blaze new paths to healing.

And it’s by learning from them that we can all blaze new paths for our own healing.

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month and the Tennyson Center is launching a collaborative effort called Every Kid Forever that creates new pathways for abused kids who are in the system and those hidden in plain sight to come forward and get the support they need to heal. We are committing to support abused kids heal in new ways that safely and thoughtfully usher them into adulthood so that the burdens they carry from their abuse are truly alleviated, and the spin off consequences of their abuse stop ricocheting across society, as is sadly the case now. And we are looking for Coloradans to join us and turn their concern for abused kids into action to ensure that no kid hides under a bed again, afraid to walk into the light of day alone. To find out how you can be a part of making this program successful, visit

Submitted by Edward D. Breslin, chief executive officer at Tennyson Center for Children.




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