We all want to raise children who show compassion and kindness to others, but sometimes we expect too much, too soon. It's natural that very young children focus on themselves. They just aren't developmentally ready to understand how others feel. This will come with time though, and as parents, there are a few ways we can really help.
Empathy doesn't come naturally to young children. You really do have to teach children to put themselves in others' shoes and see the world from different perspectives. According to an article in Parenting Science, this can be done simply, like modeling empathy yourself, or helping your kids see what they have in common with other people so they can relate to them better.
You can also ask children to start imagining how others feel from quite a young age. When they tell you a story about their friend Jessie, simply ask, 'How do you think Jessie felt about that?' Imagining other people's feelings isn't instinctive for very young children, so we need to gently encourage it.
Often, we tell our children how smart they are, or even how pretty they look, but we might not tell them how kind they are. When you catch your child showing kindness and compassion, point it out in a positive way. Praise them for being kind, but don't go overboard or try to reward it. We want to encourage kindness for the sake of kindness, and give the impression that being kind is a normal and natural way to live life.
Make consideration for others the heart of your decisions
I went to a Catholic school, run by nuns who insisted there was one school rule, and only one - consideration for others. It didn't matter how small or large our digressions were. Every single issue fitted neatly under that rule. Talking in class? Inconsiderate to the teacher. Being careless with our school books? Inconsiderate to students who would need them next year. Setting fire to the school? Deeply inconsiderate to students, staff, the local community and the fire department.
I realized much later what an important lesson I learned at that school. If you put consideration for others at the heart of all your decisions, compassion takes care of itself.
Let your child hear you thinking through your decisions, putting others first and demonstrating compromise. This doesn't have to happen when dealing with big moral dilemmas of life, it can be small things, like saying: 'I wanted to stay in bed this morning, but I'm driving carpool so that wouldn't be fair to everyone else. I'll sleep in this weekend, when no-one else is relying on me to drive.'
Help your child pick a role model
Those nuns who helped raise me took the simplest, purest 'what would Jesus do?' attitude to life, and compassion flowed naturally from that. Jesus may be a great role model for Christians trying to live a compassionate life, but many children, regardless of their faith, need a different kind of role model.
Help your child find someone they admire who shows great compassion in their daily life. It can be someone you know personally, but it could just as easily be a celebrity who is out there doing good in the world. See if any of your child's favorite actors or musicians are setting a great example, and encourage them to follow it.
Few things impact compassion so directly as volunteering to help someone less well-off than yourself. Older children and teenagers can volunteer directly for a charity or non-profit, or they can volunteer to raise funds for a worthy cause.
The important thing is to help your child connect her efforts with the real people (or animals) she's helping. Pick a volunteer project where your child can see the results of her kindness and hard work. If your children are still very young, there are several ways you can serve others together as a family.
Develop gratitude rituals
Expressing gratitude for what you have is a great way to develop compassion and selflessness. But just as you can't demand that a child shows empathy, you can't tell a child to be grateful either. You have to teach gratitude, to yourself and to others. These gratitude activities can really help.
Compassion is one of the most satisfying things to teach your children. Teach it well, and ultimately, their kindness may have more real impact on the world than all their other achievements put together.