By Nina Malanay
Raising compassionate children in this fast-paced, competitive, and indifferent world is by no means a small feat. In this age of entitlement when children are unconsciously led to believe that they are special and deserving of every privilege, it is easy for children to grow up selfish and narcissistic. It is becoming increasingly rare to see children who have the ability to look beyond oneself, think about others, and empathize with others.
But in a world with so much hatred and turmoil, where it is more convenient to look the other way and be apathetic to what is going on around us, it is more important now, more than ever, to raise children who are kind and compassionate.
Children have a natural, inborn capacity for compassion. But because their empathy must compete with limited impulse control and the egocentrism that all young children go through, combined with widely accepted messages of indifference and self-centeredness that society conveys to them, children are not likely to learn compassion on their own. This means that you, as parent, have to make an extra effort to instill this value in your child. Here are some ways to foster compassion among children in this crazy world.
When you see your child doing small acts of kindness, call attention to it by saying something like, “That was very kind of you to share the cupcake you got from your classmate’s party with your brother.” Teach him to empathize by making him think about how the other person feels. Say something like, “How do you think it made your brother feel when you brought home a cupcake from school and he didn’t have any? How did sharing it with him make him feel?” Make your child realize that being kind to others makes other people happy, while bringing joy to oneself too.
Be careful not to praise your child too much though, especially for ordinary things that are actually expected of him like thanking the waiter who served your food, or the greeting the guard who opens the door for you. Overpraising can distract kids from thinking about others because it brings the attention back to themselves.
Kids see it all. Even if you think they are not paying attention, they easily catch what you do and say. Make sure your actions and behaviors are in line with what you are preaching. Your child’s ability to care about others must be cultivated in their early years and be a part of your day to day family life. It’s not enough that you distribute food packs to street children one day and ignore them the rest of the year. Kindness and compassion must be ingrained into their lives so it becomes part of their character. By living compassionately yourself, you are sending a powerful message to your children, a message of kindness and empathy that your children will internalize in their own lives.
Talk about compassion in action.
Children learn about compassion by seeing it in action, but when parents talk about acts of compassion purposefully, children get the message that it is a valued trait in the family. Search for examples of compassion in action as you watch TV or movies. Point out compassionate acts depicted in news articles, stories, in social media, or even in your day to day experiences. Take every opportunity to have a dialogue about instances where compassion was shown – or should have been shown. Doing so will affirm the importance of living compassionately and its impact on one’s experiences and on others.
Start with small compassionate acts and make kindness a habit.
It’s easy to feel that nothing we do will make a difference in this deeply troubled world. The key is to start small. Encourage acts of compassion in your family. Get a family pet for your children to care for – or better yet, adopt one that has been abused or neglected. Console a sibling who is upset. Practice good manners. Do not tolerate rude behavior (even if you think it’s cute when your 18-month old throws shoes at you). Share a sandwich with a classmate who forgot her baon. Ban name-calling. Encourage your child to play with your new neighbor who has no playmates. Let your child come with you when you visit a friend whose loved one just died. Hold on to the thought that “no kindness no matter how small goes unnoticed”.
Develop a helping mindset.
Compassion starts with empathy and a strong desire to help. In separate studies by Dr. David Schonfeld of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Dr. Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, both concluded that children are naturally inclined to be altruistic – the desire to help is innate. As parents, therefore, it is our job to nurture this altruistic nature of children so that it becomes a lifelong habit.
For most children, the habit of helping starts with doing chores at home. Kids should understand early on that helping out is expected of them simply because it is the right thing to do. As children grow older and become more attuned to the world around them, encourage them to help other people too. Encourage them to help your neighbor carry her stuff, or open the door for his teacher at school. Buy cookies or biscuits to keep in the car for them to give to street children. Take every opportunity to point out people in need and ask “How can we help?”
Mainstream and social media are corrupted with violence, hatred and self-centeredness. Try as we may, it is simply not possible to filter everything out. It can, however, be a powerful tool for teaching compassion, so use it to your advantage. Watch TV with your kids and monitor the websites they visit on the Internet. If the characters on TV are hitting each other or calling each other names, point it out and talk about why it isn’t showing a good example of kindness and compassion. Children don’t just watch TV; they internalize it, so be aware of what values and attitudes they are acquiring.
Provide opportunities to practice compassion.
Some parents worry that introducing children to life’s harsh realities might be too upsetting for them. But the reverse is actually true. When children are made aware of others’ hardships, they come to appreciate what they have and develop feelings of pride about being able to help someone.
Compassion cannot be learned by simply talking about it, children need to see it in action.
They learn compassion when they experience giving without gaining anything in return, when they get a glimpse of what it’s like to be in the shoes of those who are in need, when they comfort someone who is suffering, when they are able to do something tangible to help alleviate the burden of others.
As a family, engage in activities that encourage compassion. Join fun-runs to support charity. Volunteer your time in charitable institutions like orphanages or homes for the aged. Hold a garage sale and use the proceeds to buy something for a family in need.
Having them experience compassion first-hand also allows them to see the impact of their action on those they are helping. They also get to experience the emotions associated with compassion such as caring, empathy, joy and satisfaction, which further reinforces the value.
Celebrate each person’s uniqueness.
Exposing children to the real world while they are still young opens up not only their world, but also their understanding of each person’s uniqueness and individuality. This gives them the tools they need to be comfortable around people who are different from them – people of different race and skin color, people of a different religion, children with special needs, and individuals with unconventional sexual orientation.
Cultivate a culture of acceptance, tolerance and love for all of God’s creations. When your child asks questions, for example, about why the child sitting across your table in the restaurant is in a wheelchair, don’t be dismissive or shush them out of fear that the child’s family can hear you and might be offended. Instead, answer her question honestly and encourage her to approach the child to say hi. Continuously nurturing this outlook will help them grow up with the mindset that celebrates people’s differences.
These are crazy times we are living in. As parents, it is easy to feel that our efforts to teach our child kindness and compassion are trumped each and every day by forces bigger than us – TV, social media and the world in general. But the fact that we live in these times, in this hostile and troubled world, is all the more reason for us to remain steadfast in the values we uphold – the values we want our children to live by, the values this broken world needs more of.
“It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” – L.R. Knost
Nina Malanay is a mother to two rambunctious, affectionate boys, aged 7 and 4. Her husband-slash-best friend died in a tragic bombing incident in 2013. As she tries to navigate through life with her boys as a solo parent, she hopes to rediscover herself beyond the many hats she wears – mother, teacher, writer, baking enthusiast, student of life – and move boldly into her future.