Raising a Compassionate Child

The world is crazy, random, and violent. As parents, sending our precious offspring out into such an unpredictable world can be scary. But as human beings who are social animals, it’s simply a reality.

The first time I witnessed my own children engage in an act of compassion was undoubtedly the most meaningful moment I ever felt as a parent. We can teach our children how to tie their shoes and brush their teeth, but the deeper, more meaningful lessons we show them through example are the most impacting and powerful lessons of all.

What is Compassion?

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.”  It is part of our emotional makeup and is triggered when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to aid in relieving that suffering.

It’s not the same as empathy or altruism, although these concepts are interchangeable.

When we think of compassion, we immediately think of Jesus Christ, Gandhi, or Mother Teresa. We refer to these people as being more compassionate than others. Scientists believe that compassion is not something we are born with, but something that is cultivated over time through practice.

I am not sure that I agree with that theory as I tend to believe that we are all born with a natural inclination to love and help others, and if children don’t watch the adults around them practice compassion and kindness, over time they disconnect from it.

Teaching our children solicitude in a dog-eat-dog world can be challenging, but it is a necessary component in helping them evolve into more conscious adults. And it is never too late to begin.

Be the Change

As parents, it is our responsibility to lead by example. For the first few years of your children’s lives, they are literally sponges downloading copious amounts of information from you and the environment. If you are not mindfully working on being a compassionate person, then chances are your children won’t have the modeling they need to become compassionate people themselves.

One Christmas, quite a few years ago when my daughters were no longer babies, I announced that I was taking them with me to feed the homeless on Christmas morning. Anarchy immediately began to reign over the kingdom (queendom, rather). For days, they were not happy campers. They had grown accustomed to waking up Christmas morning, tearing open their gifts, and then spending the entire morning lording over their new claimed treasures. They made it clear that I was “ruining everything.”

After our first stop delivering food, my oldest daughter said, “Mom” and after a long thoughtful pause she finally added, “I didn’t know how lucky we were.” After another long pause my youngest piped in: “Yeah, me neither!”

The amazing thing about compassion is that it has so many hues and colors to it. It strips us down to our most basic and intrinsic benevolence and it can take us by surprise leaving us experiencing such profound humility and grace.

Recently, my youngest daughter texted me explaining that she bought a homeless person a sandwich, and how amazing it made her feel. I was instantly moved to tears and filled with such pride and love for her genuine act of kindness.

If we want our children to become compassionate adults, then it’s up to us to teach them through example.

Promote Compassion

Brain scans show that when people experience compassion, their brains activate neural systems known to support parental nurturance and other caregiving behaviors.

So what that means is, the more you develop compassion in your own life, the better you become at caring for your children. Nature wired you that way.

Here are some simple steps you can take to increase the level of compassion in your day-to-day lives:

  • Show how to be gentle. Hands and words are meant for giving love. Teach your kids how to speak and touch with kindness so that the recipient feels good about their interaction.
  • Expect help and be ready to give it. Let your kids know when you're struggling with one too many bags, need a hug, or just a helping hand. Kids who know they have the power to help others are more inclined to do so. They can empathize with others and recognize how help improve their situation. If they see you doing the same – helping out a neighbor or someone less fortunate – they're more likely to adopt that kind of thinking.
  • Recognize kindness. When you see your child engaging in an act of kindness – whether they initiated it or received it – make a point to recognize the act. Little statements like "You're such a kind child" or "It was so thoughtful of your friend to share with you" will show your child that you value compassion.
  • Talk about emotions. Your child's sense of "kindness" and their sense of "fairness" may not always be in agreement. There will be days when they don't feel at their kindest, and that is ok. Show that you can understand their feelings in a warm and loving way. 
  • Explore topics on an emotional level. Whether you're reading a book together, watching TV, or just out and about, talk about how other people may feel in various situations you observe. Talk through the emotions of the different people and characters you come across. If someone who isn't feeling their best, discuss how you can help change their mood or guide them through their pain.
  • Volunteer. Talk to your child about which causes they're passionate about. They may want to help homeless people, hardworking firefighters, orphaned animals, or the staff at school. Work with them to find ways they can help and make it a regular activity.

No matter how old your children are, they can learn to live more compassionate lives.  So mom and dad, let this be your mantra: Compassionate parents cultivate compassionate children.

How do you teach your children about compassion? Share your stories and advice in the comments below!

Tags : conscious parenting   mindful parenting   

Anya Henners
Volunteering is definitely something I look forward to doing with my daughter this year.
Ruth Zakarai
I wish all parents would prioritize compassion. I see so many mean kids at the playground and their behavior is never corrected!
Chloe Farhadi
My little one has a problem with hitting. I don't think she's actually trying to be mean. I really need to help her understand how to be gentle.
Marcie Murzilli
I'm big into teaching compassion and helpfulness. I have a very sensitive kid on my hands. But I have to say, I'm constantly seeing kids who are competitive or ready to step on others get a lot more positive attention than those who are kind and compassionate. I guess I wish teachers would recognize those traits as well.
Elodie Nilsson
This is huge for me. I'm always trying to recognize kindness. Too many kids are raised on cartoons and other media where meanness is funny. It's such a shame to send those kinds of messages at such a young age.