Way #1: Recognize (and appreciate!) that our kids are actually here to teach compassion to US boring, jaded, and temperamental adults. (I’m talking about myself here…mostly…)
My kiddo amazes me with his compassionate responses – when he hears a baby crying, he says aloud, “I hear a baby. He sounds sad. Don’t be sad, baby!” If he sees someone drop something, he immediately picks it up for them, “Here you go.” Kids naturally possess an emotional aptitude that gets squelched as we get older. And, depending on their age and culture, most kids don’t notice differences in race, religion or sexual orientation. People are just people, everybody wants to be happy and to be loved, just like you and me.
If only the world were always so simple.
But helping our kids to develop a foundation in loving kindness and empathy can help them grow into compassionate adults who recognize the world really is so simple, and everyone really is so beautiful.
Way #2: Be a compassionate role model
The other surprising thing our kids do all too well is imitation. Sometimes I get frustrated in traffic (don’t we all?) and I have a few choice words that should stay between my ears, but inevitably they slip out. Saying things like “Get out of my way!” and “Hurry up!” and “That driver is so stupid!” in front of our kids is a great way to be an un-compassionate role model. They will invariably pick up this behavior and follow suit.
Alternatively, showing patience in traffic, concern for the safety of others, and generosity in letting another car cut in front of you are simple acts of kindness that your kids will notice, too, and eventually emulate. Talk to your kids about things that are frustrating and the benefits of dealing with difficulty compassionately.
Way #3: Incorporate stewardship into your family routine
Get your kids into the habit of giving from the very start! Choose a community activity that your whole family can contribute to: volunteering at the local food bank, visiting a senior center, picking up litter. Let this one, simple act of kindness embody your family values of compassion and generosity, and commit to doing this one simple thing together once a week.
Way #4: Hold onto high standards
Laissez-faire parenting leads to careless children who litter, spit, or throw things. Discipline is an important part of compassion, what is the ideal of a compassionate person? Don’t enforce standards that you can’t live up to yourself, and DO enforce standards that everyone in the household can model. Simple things like opening the door for others, serving others first, and careful listening (without interrupting) are important disciplines that help cultivate greater compassion for others.
Find more down-to-earth guidance on compassionate discipline in Jane Meredith Adam’s article “Raising a Compassionate Child” on Parenting.com.
Way #5: Teach and learn interconnectedness
We are all more connected than we can see…the garbage we throw out goes to a landfill and creates pollution, or if we recycle and compost it goes elsewhere and contributes back to the cycle of life. The food we eat came from a farmer who worked to grow it, from an animal who gave his life, and was transported and transformed by many people before it came to our plates. In a way, everything we do and say has ramifications beyond the seen world – help your children connect to this idea every day to engender a sense of greater responsibility for their actions.
Way #6: Pray
Praying is an integral part of the healthy spiritual life – and it doesn’t need to be a religious formula or directed toward a diety or higher power. If your family is not particularly religious, consider offering each other a few words of gratitude before starting every meal, and reflecting on the day before going to bed at night. When topics of suffering and distress arise, use prayer as a way to vocalize your hopes and fears, and don’t be afraid to share these feelings with your kids. This teaches them that it’s alright to feel helpless sometimes, and to always keep a kind thought for others.
Way #7: Role Play
With my three-year-old, he doesn’t always connect my instructions like, “don’t hit” with his actions (hitting). Then he started hitting his stuffed animals, and I started to play along. “Uh oh. Does Teddy like being hit?” Jimmy had to think about that for a minute. “No…” he said. “Why are you hitting Teddy?” Another pause. “I dunno.” “Do you like to get hit?” “NO!” Jimmy says. “What do your teachers do when someone hits you?” “They make him say he’s sorry and he gets a time-out.” “Ok. Is there something you want to say to Teddy?” “I’m sorry.”
The next thing I know Jimmy is transferring our role playing onto his other stuffed animals: “Uh oh, Teddy.” He says. “Did you hit Baby Bear? That’s not nice. You need to say you’re sorry.” Then in another voice, “I’m sorry baby bear. Can I kiss it better?” Baby bear says it’s ok, then Jimmy instructs Teddy to sit on the time-out seat.
Way #8: Meditate & Mediate
If you’re still not convinced about the power of teaching kids compassion, check out this CNN video about an elementary school in Baltimore that replaced detention with meditation and yoga for conflict resolution and behavior problems. The transformation of the school culture is stunning.
Way #9: Get crafty
Give kids a hands-on way to idealize themselves in the world as generous, kind, and thoughtful people by creating a “vision board”. This idea is from Ariane de Bonvoisin writing about Spirituality for Kids in The Huffington Post: “Have fun with this, pick out words, images in magazines. It should make them feel good to look at it and imagine what might happen.”
Way #10: Start small
Compassion burnout is a real phenomenon: feeling helpless in the face of so much suffering, not seeing the direct benefit of your compassionate actions. Starting with small projects like helping grandma do chores, or saving pennies for the local food bank, or picking up trash show kids the real impact their actions have on their families and communities. Choose one small act of kindness, be consistent, and see your kids becoming more compassionate people every day!
Need more inspiration? Print out this poster, “100 Acts of Kindness for Kids” created by Megan of Coffeecupsandcrayons.com. Put it on your fridge and get busy!