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The Down Side of Compassion

by Steve Houseworth, MA


Compassion, what an exquisite/ benevolent human trait. Or is it? The development and display of compassion is an important underlying theme behind our work at "THEFT TALK"™. Is it possible that there is a down side to forgiveness, unconditional love, giving, sharing - thinking of others? Is it possible that there are times when compassion is "good" and other times when it is counter productive, even destructive?

Hopefully we are all sensitive to the positive side of compassion and therefore its merits won't be outlined here. However, few of us take the time to ponder its flip side - enabling. Enabling occurs when you allow someone, or even support that person in the continuation of their destructive path. Enabling occurs when you, with the best of intentions and with your compassionate big heart inadvertently and unintentionally do a disservice to the person you are trying to help.

The simplest, and classic example of enabling occurs when someone, (with good intentions), offers an alcoholic a drink. Clearly such an offer or nudge is not helpful to an alcoholic. But, the breadth of enabling goes much further than that. For example, when a parent says, "The store security person didn't read my child his rights. Aren't they suppose to read his rights to him?", or, "The store wouldn't let us see the video (the one which caught their child stealing). Why should we believe them?" Once again it is admirable when a parent defends and protects their child but their posturing and compassion is doing a disservice to their loved one - they are enabling their child. With the first scenario the parent is changing the subject and consequently sending a message to their child that maybe a technicality can absolve their child of accepting responsibility for what he has done. In the second case the parent is essentially saying, "I didn't see it and until I see it I won't believe it." It is okay to check out the accusations, but, it is best to separate the issues. When in doubt a neutral position in front of your child is a safe one.

Another example involves a 16 year old boy named Andy. Andy and two others conspired to burglarize the home of an older man. One of his friends told the police about the plan and subsequently the boys were caught in the act of stealing guns and money from the home.

Andy's mom and dad were very compassionate people. They did what many of us are trained to do - see the best in everyone. In the course of a two hour interview I heard, "My son's not a burglar.", "I tell you he's a follower - not a leader.", "If it weren't for those other boys. They're a bad influence on Andy.", "Andy needs something to do. Idle hands...", "He's never done anything like this before.", "I really think he's learned his lesson". Actually the fact is Andy chooses friends who think and act like he does, Andy makes his own choices, lots of kids are bored and what lesson has Andy really learned anyway?

Another important theme at "THEFT TALK"™ is that people need to assume responsibility for their choices and actions - for their life. Andy's parents would have done well to have told Andy that regardless of his friends he made a poor choice and he needs to not only assume responsibility for those choices but also accept the consequences associated with those choices. Further, they should tell Andy that in order for him to engage in such an egregious act as burglary he must have some seriously distorted perceptions about his rights versus those of others and that his overdose of selfishness needs to be corrected.

Okay, we know some parents are marshmallows. They don't have it within themselves to, "be mean" or confrontative. Our suggestion would be a neutral statement is more compassionate than to enable the child with a defensive posture. Maybe something like, "I don't know whether or not you did it, I wasn't there."



  • He is a follower.
  • You need to understand we live in a low rent housing district.
  • If he wouldn't have ran around with Johnny
  • If only his/ her father would have been around
  • You need to understand his dad has been such a jerk.
  • If only I would've made more money.
  • I should have made him go to a different school
  • It must be in his her blood. His dad was the same way.
  • She never really hurt anyone.
  • It's my fault. I (as a parent) must have done something wrong.
  • You need to understand he is a special education student.
  • You need to understand he is learning disabled.
  • He has a poor self image
  • He's not really like that.
  • It must be alcohol or drugs that made him do it.
  • Boys will be boys.

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