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5 Ways to Instill Compassion in Your Children

Teaching your children compassion is a gift that keeps on giving.

Raising compassionate children is no small feat these days. Because of the egocentrism of children's early years combined with the increasingly prevalent messages of selfishness, narcissism, and indifference that popular culture communicates to them, children are not likely to readily learn compassion on their own. This means that you have to make an extra effort to instill this essential value in your children’s lives.

Your children's ability to care about others must be nurtured by you in their early years and woven into the very fabric of your family’s life. The wonderful thing about compassion is that there are so many conduits through which you can communicate its messages that can impact your children. When you immerse your children in a sea of messages of compassion, they are all but assured of getting the messages loud and clear.

Live a Compassionate Life

You send the most powerful messages about compassion to your children by living and expressing those messages in your own life. If you lead a compassionate life, your children will get this message frequently and consistently, and will likely internalize it in their own lives.

Expressions of compassion in your life are communicated to your children in several ways, both obvious and subtle. Your children, particularly when they’re young, will most notice the larger compassionate acts you engage in, for example, volunteering your time for a worthy cause or traveling a long distance to support a family member in need. As your children get older and begin to grasp the subtleties of compassion, they will also see the smaller expressions of compassion you make, such as comforting them when they scrape their knee or assuming dinner duties when your spouse is stressed out from work. Even smaller acts of compassion for example, being kind to a waiter at a restaurant, offer your children more subtle lessons about the depth and breadth of living a compassionate life.

Also, when you express emotions related to compassion (e.g., empathy, kindness) and the emotions you feel when you act compassionately (e.g., satisfaction, pride), you show your children what they will feel when they act compassionately. At first, you may need to tell your children about the emotions you feel, but, as they learn and ingrain the emotional connection, they will be able to sense them from you directly.

Surround Yourself With Compassionate People

As your children expand their social world, the messages from others become increasingly influential. You can actively create a critical mass of people and institutions that will support and reinforce your messages of compassion. The neighborhoods in which you live, the other families with whom you socialize, the schools your children attend, and the activities in which your children participate are all a part of your children's "message environment" over which you can exert an influence. When you surround your children with like-minded people you not only ensure that your children get supportive messages from many different sources, but those people also act as a shield against unwanted messages directed toward them.

Talk to Your Children About Compassion

As your children mature, you can begin to talk to them directly about compassion. This conduit enables them to develop an intellectual understanding of what compassion is and the role it can play in their lives. Explain what compassion is and why it is important to them, your family, and the world as a whole. The way to really reinforce this message is to offer your children examples 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 and the world at large such as donating old clothes to charity.

Explore Compassion

Raising your children's awareness and understanding of compassion is not going to be accomplished in one or even a few conversations. Instead, this process is an ongoing dialogue in which you regularly engage your children with discussions and experiences related to compassion. You can search for examples of compassion—or its opposites, indifference and hatred—in various forms of media, for example, newspapers, magazines, and the Web will offer daily examples of compassion.

As your children gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of compassion, you can further engage them with other resources, for example, books, television shows, films, and lectures that describe acts of compassion in greater depth and give your children the opportunity to more fully delve into its many facets. The goal of these many and diverse forms of messaging is to evoke in your children the thoughts, emotions, and calls to action that will make compassion a part of who they are and the way they live.

Engage Your Children in Compassionate Activities

There is no more powerful way of sending messages of compassion to your children than by having them experience it directly through compassionate activities. You can encourage acts of compassion in your family, for example, consoling a sibling who is upset or being extra loving when you have the flu.

You can make compassionate activities family affairs in which all of you participate, for example, fostering an abandoned pet. You can then talk about the experiences over dinner to share stories, discuss who and how everyone might have helped most, and to share the feelings that the experience evoked.

There are many benefits to this direct experience. Your children put a human face on their acts of compassion and see first hand its impact on those they are helping. Your children also experience the emotions associated with compassion, including empathy, caring, and satisfaction, with immediacy and intensity. And they meet and interact with others who value compassion, thus providing an additional conduit for your messages of compassion.

Who Compassionate Children Become

Compassion is such a wonderful attribute because it is the wellspring of so many other special qualities, for example, kindness, love, and generosity, that not only help your children become just plain decent people, but also will serve them so well in so many aspects of their lives.

Compassionate children are gentle, considerate, and sympathetic. They are responsive to others’ needs, helpful, and motivated to do good. Compassionate children are also generous and willing to give of themselves to others. Children who express compassion are loved, valued, and respected and, when they grow up, become extraordinary friends, co-workers, spouses, and parents. What makes compassion so wonderful for children is that its expression is a win-win for those involved. The giver feels the satisfaction of giving and the receiver expresses appreciation and will likely reciprocate in some way with that person and others.

This blog post is excerpted from my third parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You (The Experiment Publishing, 2011).

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

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