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The Power of Words to Teach Compassion to Your Children

We live in a world where compassion is in short supply. You can help change that

Words have a powerful influence on children. What we say and the words we use impact their thinking, emotions, and behavior. Early in children’s lives, emotions and behavior are the dominant forces that guide them. But as they develop their cognitive and verbal skills, words begin to play a leading role in their internal and outward lives.

We live in a world where compassion seems to be in short supply. Children are bullied and cyber bullied. Homeless people are beaten. The poor are blamed for their plight. You as parents can be a part of the problem or a part of the solution. Your words can convey callousness and indifference. Or your words can communicate caring and warmth. You can use words to help your children to appreciate and instill the value of compassion in their minds and lives. One way to use words is to develop catchphrases that capture the meaning of compassion in a compelling and memorable way.

The catchphrase that we use to encourage compassion in our daughters (ages nine and almost seven) is “sharing is caring.” I must admit that I didn’t make this one up. Rather, I stole it from my good friend, Dr. Glen Galaich, who was using it with his daughter (I did get his permission to steal the phrase from him). When our girls were very young and would share with each other or someone else (or when they didn’t!), we would tell them that “sharing is caring.” As they got older and they shared (or should share), I asked them, “Why do we share?” And they would respond, “Because sharing is caring.” We even heard them use the catchphrase with their friends who weren’t sharing. Catie and Gracie have also taken ownership of our catchphrase by being playful with it. When I ask them why we share, they will now say something like “Garing is laring” or “Haring is maring” and get a real kick out of it. But the important thing is that they know what it means. Now “sharing is caring” has become a part of our family’s vocabulary and a constant reminder of the importance of compassion and generosity.

Sonya and Ned have always felt that the most important time to be compassionate is when people (children and adults) do something wrong or hurt someone. That is obviously a frequent occurrence with children, whether hitting, saying something mean, or not sharing. Their catchphrase for compassion is “Sorry is kind.” Whenever one of their three children hurts a sibling or takes something from them, they have to say “I'm sorry for [add offense here], I wasn't being kind.” Additionally, if their children physically hurt someone, they have to give them a gentle touch as well.

Rose believes that compassion arises from empathy, so she created a catchphrase, “Feel what they feel,” to help her son understand how others may feel when he isn't kind. Whenever he did something that was unkind, for example, not sharing, she would say the catchphrase and then ask him “How would you feel if you wanted to play with a friend's toy, but he didn’t want to share with you?” and “How would your friend feel if you shared with her?”

Ellen and Kristo also believe that empathy is the key to compassion and use a catchphrase with the same meaning as Rose's. When their two daughters start blaming each other for something, Ellen and Kristo tell them to “Walk in their shoes.” The idea is that if they can put on their sister's shoes, they can see her perspective and understand why she is reacting as she is. One of the funniest things that emerged out of this catchphrase is that, on several occasions, the two sisters actually exchange shoes and the conflict was resolved.

You are welcome to use one of the catchphrases described above. Or, better yet, create a catchphrase that has special meaning to your family. In either case, the power of the catchphrase is to weave it into the fabric of your family’s lives and use it often.

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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