Teaching Compassion: 9 Secrets to Raising Compassionate Kids
We all want to raise kind humans, but sometimes it seems … harder than it should be. You are a kind human, right? So why don’t kids just glean that behavior and become naturally compassionate mini-humans? (Goodness knows they mimic our bad behaviors without much repetition.)
Small kids are still developing the cognitive capacity for empathy, older kids are trying to figure out and navigate social structures, and teenagers are trying to balance changing hormones with a frontal lobe that isn’t fully developed.
They’re good kids, and they might have great empathy for people and situations, but actually demonstrating kindness and compassion is more than that. It takes an extra effort and it adds another layer of complexity.
But there’s good news: Research has proven that compassion, like any skill, can be improved with practice. Whether your kids are toddlers or teenagers, or anywhere in between, now is a good time to be more intentional about teaching them to be compassionate.
Why teaching compassion is important
Teaching our kids to be compassionate people is, of course, the right thing to do, to continue building a better society and world. But on a smaller scale, raising kind humans means raising happier, healthier, more successful humans too:
- Kids who perform acts of kindness demonstrate greater academic success.
- Active kindness reduces stress.
- Serving others enhances feelings of joy, resilience, and vigor.
- Practicing compassion improves cardiovascular health by stimulating the vagus nerve.
- Kindness among team members improves creativity.
- Kind kids become more successful adults.
Mr. Rogers summed it up best when he said, “There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.”
1. Talk the talk.
It starts with your words—the words you speak about other people (people you know or just people who cut you off in traffic) and the conversations you have with your kids about kindness.
2. Walk the walk.
It starts with your words, but—like so many aspects of parenting—it can’t end there. Raising compassionate kids requires modeling kindness, compassion, and empathy.
One of the best ways to do this is to volunteer—on your own and together with your kids. Volunteering your own time can help you become more compassionate, but it also demonstrates to your kids that kindness is important to you and your family. Volunteering with your kids might be a struggle at first (many kids are uncomfortable in new situations and/or with people they don’t know), but stick it out.
Volunteer opportunities that you can do together might include:
- Working at a soup kitchen
- Visiting (or televisiting) a retirement home
- Doing yard work for an elderly or disabled neighbor
- Grocery shopping for an elderly or immunocompromised neighbor
- Volunteering at a local animal shelter
In addition to volunteering, you can teach compassion by striving to live an ethical lifestyle—and talking to your kids about it.
I love coffee and I am 100% committed to fair-trade coffee brands, because I know how most coffee farmers in poor, international communities are treated by most large corporations. That limits my options at the grocery store, which is fine with me.
But one day, my seven-year-old followed me into the grocery store aisle full of coffee bean bags and asked why I always get the yellow one when there are so many other choices. I had never even thought to talk to him about it, but we did that day and it was awesome.
3. Treat your child with compassion and respect.
No one can give what they have not received. It’s true of physical, material items, but it’s also true of behaviors. Kids who don’t often experience respect or compassion will not be able to give those to other people.
Of course this doesn’t mean that we stop parenting: Rules need to be established and obeyed, discipline is important, and chores need to get done. But it is possible to do all of those while still treating our children respectfully.
One important facet of this is to believe that your child can be compassionate, and treat them accordingly. Alfie Kohn, an author and lecturer on parenting and human behavior, points out that,
If you treat your kid as if he's always up to no good, soon he will be up to no good. But if you assume that he does want to help and is concerned about other people's needs, he will tend to live up to those expectations.
4. Take care of a pet.
A family pet can help teach compassion in so many ways.
Kids and animals connect, and the dependent nature of a pet pushes kids to kindness and compassion. In fact, kids who own pets generally demonstrate higher levels of emotional intelligence than those who do not.
5. Read (or watch) stories of compassionate people.
There are stories and movies about compassionate people available for every reading and age level. Look for books or movies on real people who lived compassionate lives, like:
- Mother Teresa
- Nelson Mandella
- Mahatma Gandhi
- Beatrice Webb
- William Wilberforce
As you read or watch these stories together with your kids, take advantage of opportunities to pause and talk about them. What situation are they addressing? How would you feel in that same situation? What personal risk are they taking to choose compassion? How did their act of kindness create a big result?
6. Teach your child to recognize feelings.
If I had a dollar for every time I had to explain, to my seven-year-old, that he’s not actually “helping” his little brother if his “help” is unwanted … I could probably retire tomorrow. He wants to help, but his little brother doesn’t always want his help, and the situation explodes. Because my seven has only been a big brother for a couple years, and he’s still learning to recognize and diagnose his little brother’s feelings.
Recognizing feelings starts with teaching your kids to recognize their own feelings. This seems like something that doesn’t need teaching, but it does. One of the best strategies I’ve ever stumbled upon, here, was creating a color chart with faces on it, to help my boys categorize and label what they’re feeling.
Once kids can recognize and name their own feelings, they can start learning how to recognize cues in other people, like facial expressions and body language. They can also, then, practice putting themselves in someone else’s shoes.
7. Don’t mistake ignorance for a lack of compassion.
We’ve all been on a playground or at a birthday party when our kid said something that, from an adult, would be outrageously inappropriate. (Right? Not just me? Please?)
Your kids are fine; they just don’t know what they don’t know. If they don’t have a lot of opportunities to play with kids who are different from them, their questions or comments are honest. They’re just ignorant, and that’s okay.
Remain calm and, above all, don’t make your kids feel shameful for their ignorance. Provide a straight-forward answer to the question or comment, and then, if appropriate, explain how it could hurt someone’s feelings and what might be a better way to express their need. If necessary, help your kid apologize if feelings were hurt.
8. Explore other cultures.
Exploring and celebrating other cultures is important for teaching kids about racism, because it creates more compassionate people. Learning about other cultures—globally and in your own community—broadens your kids’ perspective of what is “normal” or “right.” It breaks down natural biases and creates space for the reality that people are all kinds of different, and that’s what makes us so awesome.
9. Celebrate good choices.
When you catch your kids being kind and compassionate—call it out! Celebrate those good choices, especially when you know they weren’t doing it for show. They shared a toy, let someone else go first, volunteered, stood up for someone, etc. Let them know that you saw and that you’re so, so proud of them for choosing compassion and kindness.
Raising compassionate kids starts early and is never over. Whether your kids are toddlers or teenagers, it’s never too early to start and the work is never done.
Start by examining your own words and actions. Are you speaking compassionately (at least when your kids are around)? Are you demonstrating compassion? Adjust your own habits, so you can raise compassionate kids into healthy, happy, successful adults.