By: Shannon Ralph
If I’ve learned anything from our national news as of late, it’s that our nation desperately needs a hearty dose of compassion. From burning churches to scorching flags to blistering rhetoric, we are a nation sorely lacking. As a parent, I find the deplorable lack of compassion I see in the news particularly disturbing, as I am trying with all my might to raise kind, empathetic children in a world that is often anything but.
The Dalai Lama has spoken at length about the need for compassion in our world. One of my favorite quotes is this: Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. If you buy into the Dalai Lama’s teachings about compassion, we parents hold the future of humanity in our hands. We can raise a generation of children who will change the world by instilling one simple virtue: Compassion.
Compassionate people are gentle, considerate, and sympathetic. Compassionate people respond to the needs of others. They are helpful and motivated to do good. Compassionate people give willingly and generously of their time and resources. They are extraordinary friends, co-workers, parents, and spouses. These are the people I want my children to grow up to be. These are the attributes that will serve them well in all aspects of their lives.
Obviously, as simple as it sounds, raising a generation of compassionate children is no small order.
I was heartened by a recent article I read in the Washington Post. The article describes a series of studies completed by Kiley Hamlin at the University of British Columbia. Ms. Hamlin’s research found that human beings are wired for kindness. We prefer compassion over selfishness, and our capacity for compassion becomes stronger the more we practice it. As compassion is wired into our very nature, it would seem that we have a responsibility to practice compassion with our children.
So how do we do this? How do we raise our children to be compassionate adults?
1. Live a compassionate life. Jim Henson once said, “Kids don’t remember what you teach them. They remember what you are.” Parenthood is a huge responsibility. From birth, children take their cues from their parents. We are our children’s first teachers and they emulate our behavior from an early age. When our children see us acting compassionately, they will act compassionately. When they see us treat others with kindness, they will treat others with kindness. Conversely, when they see us belittling others, they will think this behavior is acceptable, and they and will follow our bad example.
2. Surround yourself with compassionate people. This is a no-brainer. The people we let into our children’s lives will be the people who help shape who and what our children will become. We need to make certain we surround our children will people who will teach them compassion. When we allow our children to interact with compassionate adults, the message they receive about the world is one of kindness and empathy. In the same way that they provide positive messages to our children, compassionate people also act as a shield against negative, unwanted messages. In essence, we create the world our young children live in, and we control how positively or negatively that world affects our children.
3. Help children learn to use words to describe their feelings. Children aren’t born with an innate ability to identify feelings in themselves or others. It is something that must be taught. And until we teach our children to identify feelings, it will be impossible for them to master the empathy inherent in being compassionate people. Teach “feeling” words and concepts by talking to your child about her emotions and the emotions of others.
How did you feel when that little boy pushed you? Why do you think he did that?
How do you think Abby felt when you took her crayon from her?
How do you think Max felt when he fell down in front of everyone? Did he cry?
4. Don’t stereotype boys’ and girls’ capacity for compassion. This world needs compassionate men. By assuming boys are incapable of practicing the same level of compassion that girls display, we are doing a great disservice to our boys and to our world. Unfortunately, our society tends to put a greater value (as evidenced by the abhorrent gender wage gap in this country) on boys and men. This needs to change. By raising boys to be compassionate men, they can work toward change. They can help to create—along-side women—a more kind, peaceful, and equitable world for everyone.
5. Teach responsibility by giving it. It is vital that children be given responsibility. Whether it is setting the dinner table or walking the dog, children who feel that their help is welcome and needed gain confidence that they have a contribution to make. And they keep on helping. Children who are given responsibility want more responsibility. They develop a desire to help, which is the basis for compassion.
6. Explicitly denounce acts of violence. Our children need to understand that all acts of violence—from a child kicking a sibling under the dinner table to the ongoing violence in the Middle East—are unacceptable. When we see these violent acts (in our own living rooms or on the nightly news) we need to let our children know in no uncertain terms that this violence is wrong.
7. Point out compassion when you see it and discuss it with your children. In the same way that we need to denounce violence in front of our kids, we should praise compassion. Whether it is a neighbor shoveling the sidewalk of an elderly couple or a tall person helping someone to reach something on a high shelf in the supermarket, we need to explicitly point out these acts of compassion to our children. It can be as simple as, “Did you see what that man did? That was incredibly kind of him.” Likewise, acknowledge and praise your child’s effort when you catch her acting kindly toward others.
8. Read books with compassionate characters and discuss those with your children. Reading to/with your child is a great way to introduce him to seeing the world from the perspective of others. Read stories about characters who show compassion. Who display kindness. Ask your child how he thinks the characters feel. Discuss how an act of kindness affects the other characters in the story. Children can learn powerful lessons from simple stories.
9. Volunteer together. Volunteering together is a great way to model compassionate behavior to children. It may seem a little scary to introduce your little ones to the pain and suffering of the unfair world we live in, but I guarantee you that your child will benefit from seeing others in need. Children who see the needs of others become grateful children. They become children who appreciate the blessings they have been given. Volunteer at a food shelf. Participate in a winter coat drive. Adopt a family in need at the holidays. Collect the toys your child no longer plays with and donate them to a domestic violence shelter. There are numerous ways to engage your children in your community. Take advantage of this wonderful way to instill compassion in your child and you will reap the benefits of helping, as well.
10. Help kids discover what they have in common with other people. Studies show that children are more likely to display compassion toward people with whom they feel a connection. Rather than focusing on how people differ, we need to actively talk to our children about the ways in which people are similar.
Luke has two mommies, but his mommies cheer for him at soccer games just as loud as your dad and I do. They must love him as much as we love you.
It’s true that Sara has darker skin than you, but look! She loves sparkly headbands just as much as you do!
Jack may need a wheelchair to get around, but he has some mad Minecraft skills…just like you!
11. Treat your children with respect. Amidst the constant barrage of noise and mess and running from here to there, it is easy for parents to forget that their children are small human beings worthy of the same respect we provide to large human beings. Your child is an individual with her own feelings, desires, likes, dislikes, and opinions. This individuality should be respected and honored. This can be something as simple as giving your child fair warning when a playdate is nearing its end. “10 more minutes, Sally, and we have to go.” We would never grab an adult from the midst of a business meeting and say, “We are leaving now.” But we will grab a child from the middle a playdate or drag them from a park with no warning at all. We would never admonish a coworker in front of a room full of people, but we often have no qualms about shouting at our children in a crowded department store. Children are worthy of the same respect we give to adults. By respecting a child from an early age, we teach them to respect others.
12. Explain your expectations to your child and the reasons for those expectations. Bullying is a huge, life-altering, heart-breaking reality for kids today—particularly with the ease and anonymity of cyber-bullying. This is one topic on which my wife and I have made our expectations crystal clear to our children. My three children are well-aware that their parents will be extremely disappointed, and that there will be dire consequences, if they engage in bullying behavior toward their peers. We have discussed at length the way in which bullying hurts people and have watched the documentary Bully together (some of the language is probably inappropriate for younger children, but the message is an important one). By clearly outlining your expectations prior to your child getting into a difficult situation, your child is better able to make informed choices about compassionate behavior. You become the voice in your child’s head prompting him to do the right thing.
13. Care for a pet. Caring for a pet is a wonderful way for a child to practice compassion. Our four-legged family members need our attention. They need food, shelter, and love, but they can’t ask for it with words as people do. Even the youngest of children can cuddle and play with pets. As they get older, children can feed, provide fresh water, and walk pets. Learning to understand what our pets need—and being responsible for providing for that pet’s needs—is a great way for children to practice compassion.
14. Be patient. Compassion is a difficult skill even for adults to master. Life presents us with innumerable challenges and none of us are perfect. Be patient as your child practices compassion and learns to navigate this world. Being a loving parent and committed (though probably imperfect) role model to your child will go a very long way toward raising a compassionate human being.
Be kind whenever possible.
It is always possible.
-The Dalai Lama