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Parenting: Raise Compassionate Children

Are you raising compassionate children?

Compassion is a word that is bandied around often these days as a "value du jour" in our big-talk, little-action culture of values. Yet, as with most values that are co-opted for a particular agenda, compassion has lost its fundamental meaning and value to people. Thus, the importance of compassion in our lives is not fully appreciated nor is it often expressed in our daily lives.

Because of the messages of selfishness and disregard for others that popular culture communicates these days, your children aren't likely to learn compassion on their own. You must nurture the ability to care about others in their early years. If the value of compassion isn't evident in your daily lives, your children are less likely to develop compassion and will ultimately become emotionally and socially disconnected from the larger world in which they live. Only when children are immersed in a compassionate world will they come to see the value of compassion and embrace it as their own.

The Value of Compassion

Developing compassion starts with the recognition that we are not isolated creatures, but rather individuals who are a part of many groups-communities, races, religions, nationalities, and citizens of planet Earth-that must coexist to survive. This realization leads to an awareness of others; who they are, the culture in which they live, what they believe, how they live their lives, and the challenges that they face. Compassion provides us with a context in which we realize that people are more alike than they are different. We all want to be healthy and happy, safe and secure, and feel connected; we work, we play, we raise families. Compassion enables us to feel empathy for others and to put others' needs ahead of our own when necessary.

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Consider the alternatives to compassion: hatred and indifference. A person with hatred wishes the worst for others and lacks empathy or concern for others. A person who is indifferent doesn't care about another person or group and won't reach out to help others. A hateful or indifferent person is truly disconnected from humanity-both their own and others'.

At the heart of compassion is a thought ("I am not alone in this world."), an emotion ("I feel for others and others feel for me."), and an action ("How can I help others?") that propel us to want to give of ourselves to others. Your challenge is to encourage the value of compassion and to provoke in your children those thoughts, emotions, and actions that bring compassion into their lives.

Live a Compassionate Life

If you lead a compassionate life, your children will naturally see its importance to you and will assume its importance for themselves. Leading a compassionate life is communicated to your children in both obvious and subtle ways. Your children, particularly when they're young, will most notice the larger acts of compassion in which you engage, for example, volunteering your time for worthy causes or traveling a long distance to support a family member in need. As your children get older and begin to grasp the concept of compassion, they will also see the smaller expressions of compassion, such as comforting them when they scrape their knees, assuming dinner duties when your spouse is stressed out from work, or helping a neighbor with a home project. A meaningful lesson from these examples is that compassion doesn't discriminate; acts of compassion can be small or large, empathic or substantial, or given to friends or strangers.

Talk to Your Children about Compassion

Encourage the value of compassion by talking to your children about it. Tell them what compassion is and why it is important to your family and the world as a whole. Because compassion is, at its core, an emotion, you should describe what compassion feels like (an urge to do good for someone else) and how it feels to act compassionately (satisfying, joyful, and inspiring).

To help show your children why compassion is so important, you can talk to them about the consequences of compassion: connectedness and meaning, or the lack of compassion: hatred and indifference. The way to really make this discussion hit home is to give your children examples of compassion in the world at large, as well as examples of lack of compassion. Point out ways in which your children can express compassion in your family, for example, being kind to their siblings. You can also highlight ways they can show compassion toward their community, such as donating old clothes to charity. To give them a much broader perspective on compassion in the larger world, you can show them events in the news, such as relief efforts in a poor country. Finally, you want to establish expectations about compassion in your family. These expectations should clarify what compassionate behavior you expect and attach appropriate consequences for violations of the expectations.

Explore Compassion

Educating your children about the value of compassion is not a one-time discussion. Rather, it's an ongoing dialogue in which you regularly engage your children about compassion and weave compassion into the fabric of your family life. A quality newspaper, magazine, or website will offer many examples each day of compassion-and hatred and indifference-occurring throughout the world. You can further engage your children with more extensive resources, for example, books, films, and lectures, that describe acts of compassion that give your children the opportunity to more fully appreciate all sides of compassion. The important part of exploring compassion is to evoke in your children the positive emotions associated with compassion (love, empathy, kindness, pride), the painful emotions connected to hatred (anger, fear, sadness), and the complete absence of emotions related to indifference.

Surround Yourself with Compassionate People

You are not, of course, the only influence in your children's lives. Extended family, peers, teachers, coaches, and others affect your children on a daily basis, as does popular culture. Though you can't maintain complete control your children's social lives, you can exert a considerable influence over the critical mass of people around them. Making deliberate decisions about who you surround your family with can help ensure that your children get messages of compassion from others in their immediate world.

As your children become increasingly immersed in popular culture and more vulnerable to peer pressure, assuming an active role in shaping your children's early social environment is particularly important. By surrounding your children with compassionate people, you increase the chances that peer influence and other social forces later in childhood support the value of compassion.
Engage Your Children in Compassionate Activities

As your children gain an understanding of the value of compassion, you can further deepen their connection by having them engage in compassionate activities. These endeavors can include:

  • Encouraging acts of compassion within your family, for example, helping a sibling frustrated with her homework or being extra loving when you come home from a hard day at work.Sharing activities outside the home
  • that help others, such as participating in a food drive during the holidays or tutoring younger children.
  • Discussions about the experiences, sharing stories about what each member of your family did, who they met, how they might have helped someone, and what emotions it evoked in them, all help to clarify and deepen the meaning of compassion in your family's lives.

Compassion is Contagious

Compassion fosters other essential values that will not only serve your children in their later lives, but, more basically, helps them become just plain decent people. Popular culture, unfortunately, doesn't hold decency in particularly high regard. It associated decency with being a wimp, loser, pushover, or sucker. More often than not, so-called "bad boys," such as the basketball player, Latrell Sprewell (who attacked his coach, but still plays and makes millions of dollars) and the hip-hop artist, Snoop Dogg (who has gained fame and wealth despite gang involvement, drug dealing, and jail time), are lionized by popular culture and idolized by impressionable young people. Popular culture tells your children that these bad boys get the money, celebrity, and "bling" and the decent folks are left scraping for whatever's left over.

Yet raising your children to be decent will not make them soft or easy. To the contrary, decent people are strong, independent, and willful, but these qualities are reflected in acts of compassion and goodness rather than selfishness and aggressiveness. What separates the good from the bad is not their power, but rather the values underlying that power and how that power is exerted. The bad guys use it for selfish, greedy, and, often, destructive purposes. Decent people use those values for positive, life-affirming ends.

Two other values that emerge from compassion are kindness and generosity. Kind children are gentle, considerate, and sympathetic. They're responsive to others' needs, helpful, and motivated to do good. Compassionate children are also generous and willing to give of themselves to others. What makes compassion, decency, kindness, and generosity so wonderful is that they are returned many times over, so that both the giver and the recipient benefit.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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