Children are born with a capacity for compassion. Small in size themselves, they naturally identify with stuffed animals, other kids and pets. The challenge presents itself when a child’s natural instinct is in competition with other developmental stages, including impulse control—which makes them yell at a friend when a toy is taken—and their belief that their needs always come first—which makes it extremely hard to share.
With so much hatred and turmoil in the world today, it seems more important than ever to raise kids who can understand and be kind to other people. Teaching this doesn’t mean lectures or visits to soup kitchens. It’s part of day-to-day life: how you answer your child’s questions, how you solve conflict at the park, how you nudge his or her growing capacity to understand and think about other people. Temperament of course plays a role—some kids are naturally more tuned in to other people’s feelings and difficulties, while others are a bit oblivious. Either way, you have influence in fostering your child’s ability to empathize. Age by age, here’s how to do so in small, daily doses:
- Teaching your child ways to treat things with care helps him/her develop the understanding that actions have consequences. Use those natural outcomes to teach without discipline. Kids have to learn; the earlier the better, while the cost is small.
- Show how to be gentle. Your child wants to be friendly but ends up grabbing the baby roughly? Demonstrate another way. You can actually take his/her hand and show him/her physically what a gentle touch is. If you’re anticipating a situation— a new pet, visiting a new baby—take the time to prep beforehand and practice, if necessary. There are also many books about “firsts” to help kids with what to expect in a new setting.
- Your kindness will be a role model for how to treat others. Young toddlers don’t have a very consistent long-term memory, so you’ll have to repeat your lessons more times than you thought possible. Children are a direct reflection of their parents and will behave in a way that resembles their teacher. There shouldn’t be a consistent need for lecturing if you’re living in a manner that can be imitated.
- Reject rudeness. Compassion requires that your child respect others, including you. Speak gently but firmly. You are NOT your child’s best friend; you are their guide, their teacher, their mentor and advisor. If you don’t expect it, they won’t do it. That doesn’t mean there’s no time for fun and silliness, of course! Rudeness just isn’t invited.
- Say “I’m sorry.” If you’ve been short-tempered with your child, apologize to him/her. All parents make mistakes. It’s how you address them afterward that makes the difference. Your child(ren) will learn that everyone, even Mom, admits it when she’s wrong. If you’re faced with an extremely stressful situation and feel that you’re losing control, take a time-out! That’s right—put YOURSELF in time out! This can mean a shower, a walk, a quiet minute (or 20) in the bathroom. Get control of you before you attempt to manage the problem at hand.
In the midst of trials, sometimes we wonder if it’s all worth it, if we’re doing it right, if we’re going to survive raising our kids to adulthood. I assure you it is, and you will survive!