How To Teach Your Kids To Be Compassionate

Written by Caroline Fardig

We all seem to be getting more self-obsessed by the day. Turn on your TV or open a web browser, and narcissism hits you smack in the face — everything screams ME! ME! ME! In our quest to become richer, skinnier and more popular than our neighbors, we are losing a vital component of what makes us human — our compassion.

But if we lose our focus on compassion, how can we pass that important value on to our children? How do we steer our children to be less selfish and more compassionate, when it's not the "cool" thing to do?

Here are eight tips to keep in mind (as current or future parents) to help your kids realize the importance of compassion — "cool" or not...

1. Do what you tell your kids to do: don't be a hypocrite.

In other words, be a good role model. Actually. Suck it up, parents. There's no way around it: change for your kids will begin with you. You don't preach, "Drugs are bad" while lighting up your bong. Similarly, don't judge and gossip about people in your lives while telling your kids to treat others as they want to be treated (with compassion). "Do as I say, not as I do" does not work in this case.

2. Sponsor a child.

My church's youth group sponsors a child in Africa. I had always ignored the idea, but the members of the youth group insisted they take on the project. After getting monthly updates about how our child is doing and how our donations help him and his community, I've really changed my mind.

It's not because I know intellectually that it's a "good thing to do." It's absolutely heartwarming to see kids care so much about a child they will never meet. It's also a great way to start a dialogue with your kids about privilege, to help them become aware of the ways in which they are exceptionally fortunate, and to learn about possible ways they can help out others. When a child donates her own money for a cause, she becomes invested in the outcome.

3. Adopt a pet.

It's one thing to have a family pet, but it's quite another to put a young person in charge of that pet's well-being. When you give your child the responsibility to care for a living thing, they develop a parent-like love and compassion for it. Some days it might be hard to convince your teenager that scooping poop is a labor of love, but once he realizes this somewhat uncomfortable thing is a non-negotiable for another being's survival, he'll get it eventually.

4. Get to know your kids' friends.

This may seem like a topic for a different article, but go with me here. Invariably, your kids will fight with their friends. It's part of growing up. If you know their friends well enough to be privy to the issues they're dealing with (rough home life, divorce, death in the family), then you will be better able to advise your kids how to react when their friends lash out.

When your kid comes home and says, "Jenny was mean to me today," don't reply, "Jenny is a little %&#$." Instead, say, "Well, you know her grandfather passed away last week. Maybe Jenny is having a hard time dealing with it. She probably didn't mean what she said. We all have bad days."

5. Volunteer together.

Until a kid has tried out some volunteer work, he has no idea that working for absolutely nothing in return is more rewarding than he can imagine. As a family, help out at a local food pantry/soup kitchen, nursing home or community cleanup site. For teens, look for mentoring opportunities. Seeing how their work changes lives makes their effort more meaningful. I've found it is much easier to get my kids to pick up trash on the side of the road than to clean their rooms. Funny, right?

6. Organize a fundraiser.

Anyone can organize a fundraiser for a favorite charity. It can be as small as a lemonade stand or as big as a benefit concert. Let your children use their strengths and interests to guide what they do and allow them to plan it themselves (with your assistance, of course). When kids can explain why they are raising money for a particular cause, their understanding of the importance of compassion will grow by leaps and bounds. Plus, they will get in touch with their passions and creativity (and more) in the process.

7. Teach them the art of letting go.

Cleaning out your closet is a simple action, but getting your young child to part with their old clothing and toys can cause a war. But it's an important exercise in showing them the power of letting go and the process of renewal — particularly given that their "old" jacket could be a less fortunate person's "new," very necessary, winter coat.

Invite your kids to help you clean together, so you can make a project out of donating gently used clothes and toys. Allow your kids to decide where their toys and clothing will go and they will be more likely to agree to let go of their things. Never insist that they give away a special toy, because that can create resentment and undo the work you've done.

8. Talk it out.

Good works like the ones I'm talking about here are important. But if kids don't understand why they are helping others, they are missing the point. Be candid with your kids. Explain that not everyone lives like they do — with a nice home, plenty of food, clean clothes and more toys than they need. And because of that, some people need a little extra help.

Above everything, teach your kids that the more compassion we show, the more peaceful and loving the world will be. While these tips are directed at helping your kids develop an awareness of others in more formalized way, the lessons they learn from doing things like taking care of an animal, volunteering or donating their belongings will affect all areas of their life. It will help them be more self-aware, emotionally sensitive and intelligent adults.

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