It was a lovely warm September day and my son Mikee, who was not quite three years old at the time, happened across a caterpillar on the road — you know one of the fuzzy-wuzzy black and orange wooly bears that are so common in the fall months. It stopped him dead in his tracks — not because he had found one, but because it was crossing the road. He was concerned that a car would squish it and was absolutely adamant about moving it to safety. We looked both up and down the seldom-traveled country road on which we live to make sure there was no on-coming traffic; then, he carefully rescued the caterpillar from its imminent doom. Gently, he carried it to some tall grass in a lush green meadow telling it in his little two and a half-year-old voice, "Dare do go, tittle buddy, do tafe now."
It struck me. How had Mikee, at two and a half-years-young, already learned empathy and compassion? Was it something I had taught him in that short amount of time? Or are children, in fact, born with an innate capacity for compassion?
As it turns out, children — who are obviously little in stature — identify with and have a natural urge to nurture and show empathy towards entities that are even smaller than they are. Things like stuffed animals, other children, family pets, and especially those they see as being weaker than themselves — underdogs if you will. In this case, the poor little caterpillar. However, it can be a tricky balance for these little people because their empathy must often compete with other childhood developmental forces. Those including limited impulse control, which might make them throw their teddy bear down the stairs in anger and at times an egocentric perspective, which may make it difficult for them to share that teddy bear with their siblings. But basically, compassion is already in their hearts.
It can be worrisome though — as parents raising children in a world with so much turmoil, pure hatred, and violence — to preserve the innocence of compassion with which children seem to be born. I guess my biggest piece of advice is to do it over time, in small, daily, and effective doses. It won't be the occasional lecture or the once-a-year donation to the food shelve that teaches your child to be compassionate. It will be the consistent messaging of kindness in day-to-day life that will help you foster your child's inherent ability to empathize.
Be a Role Model
Treating your children the way in which you would like them to treat others is probably the best place to start. If you don't want them speaking harshly, then don't you speak harshly — it's a no-brainer. Speak softly; it's all about tone in your voice. Your kindness towards your children will be a cue for how they should treat others. If your child does get a little unruly, make sure to reject the behavior firmly — yet gently. And don't forget that yes we are parents, but we are also human beings, and we do make mistakes. After a long day sometimes it's difficult not to be short-tempered when our children are misbehaving. If you do happen to lose it, all you need do is apologize. All parents make mistakes. When I made parenting mistakes with my children, I would simply express my regret, "I'm very sorry, this is the first time that Mommy has ever been a mommy, and I am still learning how to do a good job. Please forgive me." Remember, it's how you address them afterward that makes the difference. It's a great lesson to learn that everyone makes mistakes — even Mommy and Daddy — and it's good to admit when you're wrong. On a side note, when a child does misbehave, never punish them by withholding affection. Parental love shouldn't be a prize to be won for good behavior and taken away for bad. To inspire compassion in others, we must give it with no strings attached. Says Dr. Mark Barnett, an expert on developing empathy in children, "They need to feel secure in the fact that they are cared for and loved despite their mistakes and misbehavior. This makes it possible for children to develop an inner security that their own emotional needs will be taken care of. It's only then that they can learn to be responsive to the emotional needs of others."
Make and Enforce Rules
We were having dinner at a restaurant the other night, and there was a family seated at the table next to us. At one point a little one — I'd say around eighteen months old — took his food and began throwing it on the floor. There should be a rule against that! I can't be sure if there was in this particular family or not, but if there was Mom certainly was not enforcing it. There was no reprimanding as Mom quietly picked up the food off the floor with her napkin, never missing a beat in her conversation with the other adults at the table, completely ignoring the unacceptable behavior. As she was picking up the food on the floor, the toddler leaned over the high chair and began blowing raspberries and spitting in his mother's face. She laughed! I was appalled. As an outsider looking in, it appeared that this child had no rules to obey and that his mother was rewarding his bad behavior as being funny, with her laughter. Children do best with rules that you enforce consistently! Clinical Psychotherapist, Dr. Janice Cohn addresses permissiveness in her book, Raising Compassionate, Courageous Children in a Violent World. "Parents who are loving but permissive and who do not set limits on their children's behavior toward others have children who tend to be more selfish and less inclined to help others than are youngsters whose parents provide more discipline." Also, make sure that unacceptable behavior — for instance, hitting — is always unacceptable. We shouldn't be making exceptions for things like birthday spankings. If hitting is wrong — it should be discouraged at all times. Otherwise, we are sending mixed messages.
Provide Structure and Predictable Routines
Structure and predictable routines give children a sense of security, allowing them to feel safe and develop self-discipline. School provides daily structure for older children; however, for younger children, parents must be cognizant of providing a similar structure through daily routines at home. Consistent times for activities like meals, bath, naps, bedtime, stories, etc. are all natural ways to provide this needed structure within the day for preschool children. I have often had parents ask me if too much structure and predictability can dull children's sense of spontaneity and creativity? Sure, I suppose if the structure is too strict and you impose it without sensitivity. Here's where you'll sometimes need to use your parental judgment. Generally speaking, I don't recommend teaching children that rules are made to be broken; but, "Rules are meant to be broken!" Friday nights were always family movie night at our house, and this was a night when little folks were allowed to stay up past their bedtime to watch a movie. There's no reason structure has to be oppressive. Offering the little routines and traditions will make life both easier and cozier, as well as teach your children self-discipline — making them flexible won't hurt. Why is this all relevant to compassion? Children who have self-discipline are better able to cope and control impulsive behavior, as well as respond respectfully and with compassion to others.
Opportunities to Be Helpful
The habit of helping others starts with chores at home. Children love to feel capable, so assign manageable tasks and age-appropriate chores, like setting the table, scooping out the kibble for the family pet, sweeping the floor, or matching socks when it's laundry time. Not only can this help children with self-discipline, but just as importantly — encouraging children to be helpful around the house gives them the green-light on treating the family unit and members within it respectfully and compassionately. And that's just a start, of course, being helpful doesn't have to stop at your front door. Helping your community, your state, our country, and the world in which we live are all things that contribute to developing compassion for your child. Saving pennies each day for those less fortunate is an easy way to help others in need. We had a big jar that we would fill with pennies. When the jar would become full, we would count and roll the coins (a great math activity too!); then, as a family, we would decide to which cause the money would be donated. Children want to feel that they can make a difference by helping, so bringing charity down to their level definitely helps them develop compassion; not to mention that it opens the door to conversations about the world in which we live. When talking to your child about such things, be honest, but don't feel you have to include every scary detail. Keep explanations simple in language that they can understand, and ask simple questions — like, "How does this situation make you feel?" or "How do you think we might be able to help?"
Point Out Others That Are Compassionate
Use stories and read books about compassion. One of our family favorites was Beatrice's Goat by Page McBrier — probably because we keep a little herd of goats. There are many others too! Common Sense Media has compiled a fantastic list of books for teaching empathy broken down by ages — Preschoolers (2-4), Little Kids (5-7), Big Kids (8-9), Tweens (10-12), and Teens (13+). Follow the link, and you'll also find movies and TV shows that promote empathy. Also be sure to point out real-life heroes, those who are there to serve and help in every-day as well as emergency situations. I wouldn't recommend intentionally exposing children to things that might be scary; shield them from disturbing images as much as possible. However, when they hear or see something frightening or of concern, focus the conversation on those who help others out of compassion. For instance firefighters, soldiers, rescue workers, doctors, and other volunteers.
Teach Manners & Appreciation
Teaching good manners and discouraging those that are bad is a wonderful way to bring compassion into the conversation. Using good manners and appreciating other human beings keeps us all coexisting harmoniously and are excellent ways to show compassion at any age! Exhibiting good manners as a daily routine is a great habit to get into because it enforces the notion that there is another person on the other end of the relationship who has feelings and deserves respect. I can remember when the town was paving our road years back; my two boys, six and eight at the time, sat at the edge of our driveway and watched the heavy excavation equipment and dump trucks for hours. At the end of a hot eight-hour day, we decided the men looked very thirsty and brought them some ice-cold lemonade to thank them for making our road so nice and smooth. It's a very good idea to get children into the habit of sending thank-you cards to friends and relatives in appreciation of gifts and other kind gestures. For a child not yet up to writing a message, a drawing can be a perfect way of expressing their feelings.
Help Your Child Be a Good Friend
To do this, you should always stay tuned in during playtime (especially for younger children), so you can help your child figure out how to be a good friend. Compassion starts with what's acceptable and what's not. Things like name-calling, aggressive physical contact, selfishness, and other negative behavior should always be unacceptable. Explain that this type of behavior is unkind and when you're trying to make friends, being kind to others is the golden rule. Of course, often it's another child initiating the bad behavior. In this case, I would tell my children, "Just because he/she is misbehaving, doesn't mean you should too. We know better. You don't have to like them and be their best friend, but you do have to be nice." As with any bad behavior, it's important to have consequences in these situations too. If the be-nice rule is broken, stick with simple, concrete consequences such as a brief time-out or losing a favorite toy for the day. On the flip side, make sure to acknowledge acts of kindness. When you catch your child doing something nice for another child, label those actions by saying "What a good friend you are," or "You're very thoughtful." Teaching your children about friendships and relationships is another perfect time for you to step in as the role model too by not trash talking people in your life. Kids, as we know, are always listening. How we talk on a daily basis about our friends, siblings, parents, etc. shows children quite a bit about forming relationships, maintaining relationships, and how to treat those with whom we are in relationships. When children hear us saying something negative about others, they learn that it's okay to talk that way. So keep meanness in check and show your children that you have a spirit of kindness and compassion.
These are a just a few tips on raising a compassionate child in today's world. Mikee is now 18 years old and still the kind, thoughtful, and compassionate human being he was at two and a half. It wasn't a wooly bear in the road this time; however, just the other day, while on his bicycle for a training ride, he happened upon a snapping turtle on the highway. With cars whipping by at 50 mph, he got off his bike, stopped traffic, and guided the turtle with a big stick to a safe swampy area on the other side of the road. I am so proud of him — that is what I call being a compassionate child in today's world!
Is raising your children to be compassionate important to you? Please comment below.
Oh! And by the way, we'd be ever so grateful if you'd...