Teach and Model Compassion to Children

Compassion is one of the tender emotions people can have for each other. Yet, this exceptional feeling is not always naturally experienced by youngsters and thus has to be taught and cultivated by parents and other adults.

The dictionary definition of compassion is, “The sympathetic emotion created by the misfortunes of another, accompanied by the desire to help.” Small children are still in the process of learning about the risks and joys of their own experiences. To be able to appreciate the misfortunes of another requires a higher level of comprehension and empathy that small children are yet to possess. Thus, they need to be instructed by parents about grasping the emotional plight of another and how they can use words and actions to ameliorate some of others’ discomforts.

Developing compassion, though not innate for many children in early childhood, is needed in order to establish bonded ties with other children and adults in their lives. Human bonding is based on mutual positive regard, friendship and solid trust that reciprocal care enhances all parties. This is a highly evolved perspective that may collide with the self-gratifying focus of small children.

Since the innate early instincts of young children are primarily propelled by self-gains, it is the parents’ role to help their youngsters learn to sense the discomfort of other children, provide compassionate assistance in words or actions and feel rewarded for being a supportive friend. This is mostly done by parental example and specific instructions about how the child can understand the tears of a playmate and what he/she can do to console the distressed child.

A longitudinal study by Qing Zhou and associates titled, “The Relations of Parental Warmth and Positive Expressiveness to Children’s Empathy-Related Responding and Social Functioning” found that “parental modeling of positive expression predicted more empathic responses in children.” It also documented that “children who showed empathic responses, particularly to negative stimuli, were more socially competent and showed less externalizing of problems.”

In the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology” Professor Nancy Eisenberg and Colleagues of the University of Arizona reported the long-lasting benefits of developing compassionate emotions for others during the early years. They stated, “Empathy, sympathy, and pro-social behaviors in childhood were strongly related to sympathy and pro-social behavior in early adulthood.” The latter were very reinforcing and emotionally rewarding for the adults who practiced compassionate caring.

Zhou and colleagues’ research provided strong evidence that empathic tendencies are passed from parent to child. They stated, “Parental warmth and positive expression predicted more empathic responses in children, which may only underline the interrelatedness of biological pathways and socialization processes.”

All parents are challenged by the task of training their children to become healthy and other-caring adults. The rewards for these upbringing tasks are immense for both parents and their healthy children who eventually become kind and caring adults.


  • Patiently model and teach your children how to become compassionate beings.
  • Delight in having raised kind adult children.

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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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