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Raising compassionate children

Let’s face it, the past two years have been difficult for everyone. Your schedules have been upended by COVID restrictions and your children’s learning has been impacted in many ways. You’ve worked hard just to get through daily life with the realities of a pandemic.

So, it’s possible that some of the concerns you’d normally have for your children’s social development have paled in light of your concerns with reading, writing, and math learning. Still, we all want our children to know how to be kind, caring, and compassionate individuals. Further, we worry about the bullies of the world and what their anger and frustration may mean in the lives of our kids.

Kindness and compassion don’t just happen, they’re learned behaviors. We begin teaching a baby about compassion when we nurture them and care for their basic needs with love and tenderness. Later, we monitor any aggressive behaviors with reminders to be gentle, to ‘use your words,’ and teach the language of kindness toward others. As our children grow, our means of teaching them healthy emotional responses to others grow and become more sophisticated. 

Here are many ways you can be intentional about teaching your child to learn compassion:

Receive. From the moment your baby was born, you’ve cared for their needs. You fed, cuddled, bathed, and diapered them. You played games, sang songs, and showed your love and care for them in a thousand ways. Your child has been the recipient of countless compassionate gestures. Children whose needs have been met are much more likely to be open to showing kindness to others than those who have been neglected or abused. Your modeling of loving, kind behaviors is the foundation upon which you build your lessons on becoming a compassionate person. Good job.

Observe. Take the opportunity to point out kind behaviors observed in your daily lives. Look for the person who shares, the one who waits their turn, the person who helps when someone is hurt. Talk about those incidents and encourage your child to verbalize what they’ve seen: “Did you see that Matthew helped Jason when he fell and hurt his knee? Why do you think he did that?”

Encourage your child to look for kind behaviors 

and report them. The evening meal is a good time to share positive reports: “Who caught someone being kind today?”

When conflict arises in a child’s sphere, take the opportunity to talk about the problem and brainstorm solutions. “Why did John become angry and walk away? What else could he have done?”

Talk about showing compassion. As you watch TV or movies, point out the characters who show compassion or point out unkind, negative behaviors and explore why they occur: “Why is that kid so angry?” or, “What is that person feeling right now?”

Encourage pretend play that works on conflict resolution: “Your teddy bear seems upset. Can you show some kindness to your teddy bear?” 

Give. Include giving or volunteering in the life of your family. Be sure each member has a part to play. Helping at a shelter, feeding someone who is hungry, giving time, energy, and resources to those in need shows your children that you value the comfort and well-being of those around you. 

Children are open to talking about how sad it is that some people are homeless, or others don’t have enough to eat, or toys to play with. It’s healthy to have those conversations, especially when you combine it with positive actions.

Care for a pet. When your children are old enough, allow them to take on the responsibility of caring for a pet. The daily feeding and watering, walking, and general clean-up involved in caring for a pet is a wonderful way to teach kindness.

Read books. Find appropriate books for your child’s developmental level that speak directly to showing kindness to others. The topic of bullying and why it happens is also part of this discussion. Those who haven’t received love and nurture may be the ones acting out to hurt others. 

Here are three titles on learning compassion for young children:

Kindness is My Superpower by Alicia Ortega

Listening with My Heart by Gabi Garcia

Leo Learns About Kindness by Anthony Dominic Lalicata

Make it visible. Some families like to create a visible demonstration of the importance of showing compassion. They may label a jar ‘Our Kindness Jar’ and fill it with written observations of acts of kindness. “Mom let a woman go in front of her in the grocery line” or, “I stopped to help Linda when she dropped her books today.”

Another tangible idea is to wear a kindness bracelet that reminds the wearer to do a kind deed. When the kindness is accomplished, the bracelet is turned over to show a smiley face.

Sometimes we wonder how we can make any difference in a world filled with unhappy people demonstrating unkind behaviors. It’s good to remember that we can only change our own behavior and not that of others. But we can teach our children to be caring, compassionate individuals. One kind act has a way of encouraging others to show kindness, as well.

Jan is a retired teacher and a writer. She is the author of Homegrown Readers and Homegrown Family Fun. Find her at janpierce.net.

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