To teach compassion to your kids is no small thing, but here’s some ways to model good behaviour from Dr. Dina that will make it a little easier.
I, like many North American parents, cannot stop thinking about the many families in Paris, Syria and Beirut (among many other nations) who are scared, mourning or injured today. My family and I are safe, secure and thankful. We have a roof over our head, food in our bellies and a warm bed at night. My kids went to swimming lessons this am and are napping soundly, peacefully. So many families are living in turmoil and fear as I write.
I will not pretend that I have magical solutions to these political struggles. I am a simple mom and doctor. I love my kids like you love yours. I strive to keep them happy and safe as you do. We are the same.
A top priority for my family is to teach our children compassion and love for one another – not necessarily an easy feat. We struggle daily with temper tantrums and jealousy and “unfairness.” But we work at it.
I want my kids to love your kids, and to value our differences. Our kids, all less than 5 years of age, don’t seem to notice (or at least comment) on the colour of skin, body habits, or other physical features. Perhaps they are too young. Perhaps they are modelling our behaviours. So far so good.
Here are a few ways to help teach compassion to your kids.
Show how to be gentle
Teach your child how to be gentle with their toys and each other. Actions have consequences which they can learn from a very young age. If your child acts aggressively, try modelling the opposite, gentle behaviour. For example, your child scratches your face; take their hand and softly caress your cheek, saying “gentle, gentle.” Physically demonstrate what this nice touch is. Turn aggressive behaviour into compassionate behaviour.
Speak softly but with purpose
We yell. Every parent does, from time to time. Try to rein that in. We want our children to speak to each other with kindness and love. So why do we yell? We would hate for them to imitate this. Speak with warmth and caring.
It breaks my heart to see a toddler acting disrespectfully to their parents. I frequently see children kicking their caregivers, biting, and spitting. Would you let your partner or friend act this way towards you? In a stern but loving way, redirect these actions to more positive behaviour.
“No, no, no… OK, fine” parenting is difficult to avoid. Your child is nudging you, pestering for that extra piece of cake, one more minute of TV or another story before bed. You can’t take any more pestering. You give in. What did you just teach your child? That if they bug you enough and avoid listening to you, they will win – not a great place to put yourself in. You have lost this battle and they know it. Sure, it is just one battle, but this will lead to many more. Stay firm. Don’t concede. You can parent more effectively if you are the boss. My goal is for my children to know with 100% certainty that if they do X, the outcome is Y 100% of the time. This outcome is the same if they do X in front of me, my husband, or any other caregiver.
Normalize “I’m sorry”
If you have a fleeting “angry parent” moment, apologize. None of us are perfect. Your child will benefit from seeing real, emotional moments and then your ability to rein yourself in and change. Say you are sorry and move on in a positive way.
Need some help with dinner? Help taking out the trash? A hand tidying their room? The habit of helping others starts at home. Chores allow your child to feel responsible and proud. Make sure you make them feel valuable.
Set high standards
My kids know I love good manners. Please and thank you are king in my house. In fact, I don’t respond to them without those magic words. “Mommy, get me some milk,” is met with no response. Not a blink of an eye or my head turning towards. Not until that “please” is added do I jump. And then, I thank them for asking politely. Their good manners are met with mine. I hope they remember these special words when speaking to other people in their life.
When your child has a play date, try to stick around. Are the children speaking to each other with respect? If so, praise this kindness. Do you hear name-calling? Make it unacceptable. A firm reminder and redirect may suffice. A time out may be more your style.
Model kind behaviour
Children learn from observing your actions and behaviours. If your child sees and hears you having positive encounters with others, they are more likely to do the same. Model the behaviour you hope to see in them. Avoid trash talking others in their presence.
Even children as young as 2 can explore feelings. Talk about the characters in a book: who was cruel and who was kind, and how they could behave differently? Discussing another’s motives and feelings can help them explore their own.
Shower your child with love
This may seem obvious and intuitive, but is worth mentioning. When you think something positive and amazing about your child, be it their cute smile, their demeanour or good behaviour, say so. This will encourage your child to also praise others.
When children actively engage in showing compassion to others, they learn its value in a deep and enduring way. Find age-appropriate ways to volunteer with your child. Volunteer at a pet shelter, a food pantry, or at the local hospital. Every child has a soft spot for a particular group of people or animals. These activities can be meaningful and fun and an effective way to teach compassion to others less fortunate.
Read about it
There are tons of excellent books that can help your child learn about love and compassion. One excellent author is Trudy Ludwig, an award-winning author of books like The Invisible Boy and My Secret Bully. Biographies of figureheads of compassion such as Mother Theresa and Dalai Lama are excellent choices for older children.
Who knows, maybe my child’s love and kindness to your child will lead your child to show love and kindness to the next child, and so on and so forth. Maybe that is the secret to a more peaceful world? I wish it were so simple.
Dina is a wife, mother of 4, and adrenaline junky. She loves to share children’s health information from her professional and personal experience. More About Dr Dina.