Parenting young children — 23 December 2007
How to teach compassion to children

The winter holiday season is a time of celebrations and sharing. It is also the time in which we get more deeply in touch with our compassion for others. Many families and individuals act in caring and loving ways towards those who may be, at the time, less fortunate than they are. Lest children think that this is a once a year awakening, we must help them learn the meaning and practice of compassion throughout the year.

Compassion is a human virtue that allows us to understand and feel the experiences, emotions and circumstances of others – as though they were our own. Though the dictionary definition uses pity and compassion interchangeably, they are actually quite different from each other. Pity is an emotion of caring for those who are less blessed and who may be viewed as unfortunate, perhaps partially due to their own doing or being. Compassion is the non-judgmental, tender, pure kindheartedness that helps us be truly connected to others.

Empathy is another emotion that is closely related to compassion but differs from it. Dr. Robert Leahy, Director of The American Institute of Cognitive Therapy, makes the distinction between: “Empathy –where we recognize the feeling that another person has and Compassion-whereby we feel with and for another person and care about the suffering of that person.”

The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau put it this way: “Compassion is a natural feeling, which, by moderating the violence of love of self in each individual, contributes to the preservation of the whole species. It is this compassion that hurries us without reflection to the relief of those who are in distress.”

The parental role in developing compassion in children has three subtasks: Creating an early environment for secure attachment, providing verbal instructions for compassionate conduct and modeling compassionate behavior.

Secure attachment is created, according to Dr. Bowlby’s attachment theory, through parental availability and exhibiting loving, positive and protective reactions toward the infant. Parents, who validate their children’s feelings and ideas, treat them with respect and appreciation, help train their children to develop acceptance, positive regard and a greater capacity for caring about others.

In addition to compassionate treatment of the children, regular verbal instructions help ingrain in the children deeper compassion. Studies by Carolyn Zahn-Waxler and Dr. Radke-Yarrow found that children were more empathic when their mothers reprimanded them for the discomfort they caused another child by saying, for example: “Look how sad you’ve made her feel.” Conversely, praising kind and considerate gestures by a child toward another child or adult – reinforces compassionate behavior. That which is validated is repeated.

Modeling caring for others in a loving and respectful way is an excellent way to establish a norm for children’s conduct. Youngsters accept their parents’ behavior as the ideal ways to be duplicated by them as they mature. Children, who see their parents care for an elderly neighbor, cook meals for homeless families, assist sick and lonely people or console the bereaved, learn invaluable lessons for a compassionate life.

Raising children is a very challenging task, grooming youngsters toward becoming decent and compassionate adults – is a mission and a privilege.

• Love and cherish, protect and adore your babies. Be dependable, available and consistently loving. Feeling secure in your care will help your infant develop a sense of safety about connecting to people and being concerned about their welfare.
• Treat your children with respect, curiosity and acceptance as though they were precious, interesting and enjoyable little adults. Cherished children absorb compassion.
• Consider every act, thought and emotion of your child with loving bemusement, not frustration, particularly when the reactions are very different from you own. Children whose reality is validated learn to be more open-minded and compassionate towards others.
• Read to your children good books that deal with moral issues and discuss the stories with your children. is one list of books for 3-8 year olds.
• There are no “Bad Children” only good children who occasionally behave badly.
Reprimand their conduct, (not their being) and insist that this behavior is
incongruent with their kind nature.
• Encourage your children to care for a pet.
• Validate good behavior. Say: “I am very proud of you for hugging your little brother when he was hurt. This shows how kind and caring you are.
• Model compassionate behavior towards others. Children absorb the meaning of caring by example. Compassionate adults are often products of compassionate parents.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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