Walk around these days and watch people. So many of them are buried in their smart phones and electronic devices. The question becomes how connected are we really? We can reach out and touch someone with a click, but what about the people in front of us, the ones we see every day?
Human beings are hard wired to be sympathetic, to reach out to those in need. But just because that is human nature, doesn’t mean we do it automatically. In an age where it is so easy to become involved in gadgets and “me first” mentalities, it is important to remind our children that it’s not “all about me.” But while compassion, the ability to be aware of and responsive to other people’s needs, is a natural response for children, parents must take an active approach to making sure that behavior is not overwhelmed by the demands and expectations of a digital age.
How do we, as parents, teach our children to be compassionate? Here are some tips.
- 1. Nurturing nature. If you study small children, you’ll see that they seem to have been born with a desire to be compassionate. If they see someone crying, they will offer a favorite toy or some other age-appropriate gesture to cheer the person up. But as time goes on, if that compassionate nature is not encouraged and nurtured, it will die out. This means that parents must actively look for opportunities to show compassion and then encourage compassionate behavior. For example, if a classmate falls and skins her knee, you might teach your child to ask “Are you okay? Do you need a band aid?” instead of laughing. The gesture doesn’t have to be grand. Sometimes small acts of kindness make more of an impact than big gestures.
- 2. Pick your cause. There are a ton of charities in the world today. It is impractical, if not impossible, to donate to all of them. It’s also not very effective. For compassion to take root, the cause must have meaning to your child. Talk to your child to find out what’s important to her. Maybe it’s animals, or the environment, or taking care of less people who are less fortunate. Once you’ve identified an area of interest, you can go online and research different charitable agencies that provide service to that area and pick on. Choosing a cause that resonates with your child increases the chances that she will truly embrace compassionate activities, thus making it a part of her life.
- 3. Teach empathy. Once kids know that a person needs help, they are often eager to help. But how to they know? Is everyone who cries feeling sad? Parents can teach children how to read another person’s emotion by looking at body language, facial expressions, and words. After they identify a person in need, ask your child how he would feel in the same situation. What would he want or how would he want people to respond to him? Use those answers to come up with a plan of action to address the person’s needs.
- 4. Reinforce and recognize. As with any behavior, it’s important to close the feedback loop. When you see your child engaging in compassionate behavior, be sure to recognize that. You don’t necessarily have to give them a reward. Simply pulling her aside and saying, “You were really nice to your sister just then, I admire your compassion” is enough. When children receive positive reinforcement for their behavior, they are more likely to repeat. And repetition helps them make compassionate behavior the default in their lives.
Being compassionate is a choice to put others first. Take the time to look for opportunities to teach your child this valuable lesson. Guaranteed they will receive far more than they get.
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A software technical writer by day, Mary Sutton is the mother of two teens and has been making her living with words for over ten years. She is the author of the Hero’s Sword middle-grade fantasy series, writing as M.E. Sutton, and The Laurel Highlands Mysteries police-procedural series, writing as Liz Milliron. Visit her online at www.marysuttonauthor.com.