How do we raise compassionate kids?

In a world where we often teach our kids to toughen up and turn the other cheek, the flip-side is reaching out to others with kindness. Whether we’re holding a door open, walking a dog or talking to someone who looks lonely, these simple acts of kindness can help make the world a better place. So how do we raise compassionate kids?

Our children grow in many more ways than expected through kindness and compassion. By modelling empathy and encouraging it in our children, we are helping them learn to care about others, which leads to positive feelings of self-worth and hope for the future. This care and concern for others is the key to a happy and meaningful life.

University of the Sunshine Coast early childhood education lecturer Dr Ali Black says that for success in life and learning, parents need to set a solid foundation so children can learn how to connect with other people.

“There’s research that says that children who have social and emotional skills, like being able to show empathy and compassion and kindness, that they’re going to be better at school, they’re going to achieve more, because they’ve got a stronger self-concept and a stronger awareness of other people,” she explains.

Parents have an important role in helping their children recognise the feelings of other people and to relate that to how they might feel if they were in that situation, advises Ali.

“Children take their cues from us, as parents, and if we want our children to be more kind or more caring, more compassionate, then they need to see us treating them with that and they need to see us treating other people with that in mind,” Ali says.

The early years

Babies have the ability to respond to the emotions of others from birth, according to the Raising Children’s Network. By the time they are one year old, children are beginning to show concern for others and often try to comfort them. A study found that more than half the children aged 13-15 months had tried to hug, pat or touch another person who was distressed.

These early signs of empathy increase with age and children respond in a wider variety of ways as they grow, for example, with a verbal response (Are you OK?) or sharing a favourite toy or blanket. However, the Raising Parent’s Network advises that young children will not show empathy all the time, and they will get better at showing their emotions as they get older.

Ali says that her own children definitely had the capacity to understand and respond to her emotions from an early age. She remembers her children, aged two and four, came onto the stage during a eulogy at her mother’s funeral and cuddled her for the length of the talk. Adults don’t need to hide their feelings of sadness in these situations, says Ali, as they are opportunities for children to understand that we’re human, that we’re sad and that they can comfort us.

We need to spend time with our children, sharing stories and experiences, though Ali advises that we don’t need to set aside “empathy hour”. It’s the everyday interactions that are most important, for example, chatting during the family dinner or even while driving along in the car.

“Parents need to have conversations with their children about their experiences, to talk about and value emotions and relationships with others. We want children to have empathy and emotional intelligence for a better world. They are citizens now and of the future,” she says.

Kindness begins at home

Learning to make real connections with the wider community begins at home, where parents can demonstrate a kind and caring attitude. This gives children a secure and stable base for understanding and responding to the needs of others.

Growing up in a warm, loving home is important for children’s healthy development, but not everyone has a home environment where positive qualities like care and concern for others are valued. When deprived of love, children tend to focus more on their own needs and wants.

Ali explains that every child’s background and experiences are different, and this will shape their behaviours and understandings, therefore, teachers have a responsibility to build a caring climate in the classroom to help those children whose emotional radars may be “a little bit challenged” by difficulties at home.

Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, advises that love is the most important nourishment for children, who cannot survive without the care of others.

“The happiness of childhood, the allaying of the child’s many fears and the healthy development of its self-confidence all depend directly upon love,” he says. “Nowadays, many children grow up in unhappy homes. If they do not receive proper affection, in later life they will rarely love their parents and, not infrequently, will find it hard to love others. This is very sad.”

Community connections help raise compassionate kids

Superficial connections are created through social media and technology these days, but there is an increasing sense of disconnection and isolation from others. Children need real community connections to give their lives meaning, however, it’s harder to achieve that because we live such hectic lives, burdened with stress and busyness.

“We don’t know our neighbours very well and there’s not that connection that perhaps culturally or historically or traditionally there might have been,” Ali says.

Community connections offer places for support and relationship-building, so children can feel part of the wider world in which they live, says Ali. These connections could be developed through a sporting group or an activity like singing or dancing. Children thrive when given the opportunity to act responsibly.

“There are small ways that we can make our community kinder,” she says. “Responding to each other with care is really important. It’s important for strong, loving relationships and for children to feel accepted.”

The ripple effect

A simple act of kindness creates a ripple effect that touches others’ lives and inspires them to be kind. Melbourne mother-of-two Lisa Currie is actively helping people share positive acts of kindness through the Ripple Kindness Project (www.ripplekindness.org), which she says is a natural solution to some of our most threatening social issues, including bullying, depression and exclusion.

“The aim is quite simply to help improve people’s lives by introducing them to the feel-good emotions they experience when doing a kind deed and to help reduce social, emotional and mental health issues within homes, schools and communities,” Lisa explains.

Lisa says the easiest place to start is at home and she urges parents to be kind themselves, to create kindness within the home and to show their children by example how to be kind. We feel happier and healthier and we actually have more energy, says Lisa, so we want our children to feel these good emotions that arise from care and concern for others.

Children can start with small tasks that are thoughtful and caring, such as drying the dishes or giving their parent a hug. Acts of kindness outside the home include picking up a piece of rubbish and putting it in the bin, offering a helping hand or even opening a door for some-one.

“They’re really simple little things but they’re just things that make people feel good,” Lisa says.

Another kindness activity is for kids to go through their toys, books and clothes, and donate anything they no longer use to needy children.

“Explain that there are children who aren’t as lucky as they are that would love their unused items,” Lisa says. “Perhaps they could donate to the school they attend where the well-being teacher can distribute them to needy children within the school.”

Kind ideas to help children pay it forward

  • give a compliment
  • ask why someone looks sad
  • clean a friend’s car
  • do a job without being paid
  • Talk to a friend who looks lonely
  • Smile at people
  • pick up rubbish
  • make your parent’s bed
  • Leave flowers on a windscreen
  • bake a cake for someone
  • tell your grandparents you love them
  • give someone a big hug
  • make a card to thank your teacher
  • include people when you play
  • share your toys
  • return a shopping trolley
  • pick something up for someone
  • be kind to everyone

*Source: The Ripple Kindness Project

For more on parenting, try Quiet Please! How to restore peace to your home and Is your child angry all the time?