Compassion is defined as a “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” Unfortunately, we are not born being naturally compassionate. Rather, compassion is a learned skill. And it is a skill that needs to be taught at home. Sadly, some families don’t make teaching this skill a priority.
I’ve taught Sunday School for many years, and the lack of compassion that I’ve observed from some children is disturbing. When I’ve asked students to consider the suffering of the poor or homeless, on occasion, I’ve received blank stares. The needs of the less fortunate simply are not on their radar.
As parents, our job isn’t just to feed and clothe our children. It also is to send decent human beings out into the world. Our job is to produce people who will do their part to make the world a kinder, gentler place. We can’t accomplish that if we don’t teach our children to be compassionate people.
Below are some ways to instill compassion in your children. Consider using these some of these compassion-building techniques with your own children.
Use compassionate language.
As adults, we make a lot of off-handed comments about other people. Occasionally, I hear people refer to homeless people as “bums.” Some people refer to mothers who receive public assistance as “welfare mothers.” We refer to animals without homes as “strays.” And if there are unwanted animals or insects in our homes, we call them “pests.”
All of that language sends the following message to our children: There are people and animals in this world that are less valuable than we are. And since they are less valuable, they don’t deserve our compassion. That is the wrong message to send to your children.
Now, most people make these comments without having an evil intent. It is just the language of society. But these kinds of words send a message. So, if you want to raise compassionate children, you need to consider the kinds of word that you use.
It is important to describe the less fortunate in a way that instills pity for them. For example, people and animals without homes are “homeless.” Someone on public assistance is “poor.” The unwanted creatures who occasionally are in our homes are “visitors” who need to be gently escorted out! Choose words that to promote the idea that those who are suffering or alone deserve our compassion and help.
Perform acts of compassion yourself.
You are your child’s first example of how to be a decent human being. So, your child should see you doing kind deeds for others.
As a result, when you take unneeded clothes to the poor, have your child help with the process. Have him or her pick out the clothes that should be donated, and bring your child along to make the donation. If your child is with you at the grocery store, pick up cans to give to the local food shelter. Speak with your child about who may benefit from these donations.
If you have elderly people in your family, make sure you and your child visit those people. Show your child how to gently treat people who are disabled or infirm. When you set an example of being kind to those who are in need or suffering, your child will want to do the same. Our children want to be like us!
Teach your child to care about people globally.
In today’s society, we tend to operate like “pack animals.” Our compassion often is limited to those in our “pack.” So, if we share the same citizenship, gender, political party, sexual orientation and race, then we easily feel compassion for another person’s suffering. If we don’t share those things, then we struggle to feel compassion for that person.
Unfortunately, this is a very limited approach to compassion. To teach our children to be truly compassionate, we have to teach them to care about people who aren’t like them. We need to teach them to be as concerned about the hungry, homeless child in India as they are about the hungry, homeless child in their home town.
To do so, we have to eliminate the negative language that we use to talk about others who aren’t like us. So, when we talk about people who hold different political views, we should speak about them as fellow, patriotic citizens, who simply have different ideas about how our country should be run.
Similarly, when we speak about refugees from poor countries, we shouldn’t refer to them as “illegals.” That is a simplistic word that doesn’t fully convey the complexity of the immigration situation. When we discuss immigrants in front of our children, we should explain that these are people from poor countries, many of whom are suffering. And we should talk about how they deserve our pity.
Treat your children and spouse with compassion.
By far, the best way to teach compassion is to act in a compassionate manner in your home. If you frequently are critical of your spouse and children, you aren’t operating in a compassionate manner. And guess what? Your children will emulate you.
Early on, I figured out that the compassionate response was the best response as a parent. For instance, when my daughter was in middle school, on occasion, she inexplicably would come home in a bad mood. However, I quickly learned that she wasn’t being difficult on purpose. Rather, if she was being sullen, it was because her feelings had been hurt that day. From this experience, I learned that as a parent, negative behavior doesn’t always call for a negative response. Rather, I learned that negative behavior calls for a compassionate response.
Similarly, it is important to treat your spouse in a compassionate manner. Often people get comfortable in their marriages. As a result, they say whatever pops into their heads, with little filter. So, if their spouse is irritating or upsetting them, they’ll thoughtlessly insult their spouse. However, when you speak to your spouse in an unkind manner, you show your children a lack of compassion that, unfortunately, they someday will emulate.
Realize that our children don’t just do what we tell them to do. They follow our example. They ultimately will do what we do. So, take care to behave in the way that you want your children to behave.
Raising compassionate children is the greatest gift that we can give the world. Setting up the next generation to be just a little bit kinder, more thoughtful and more compassionate is incredibly important. It is the only way to ensure that our world someday will become a truly beautiful place to live for everyone.