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We’re all born with the capacity for love and compassion, but just like the rest of the muscles in our body, compassion must be exercised frequently or it will atrophy. Today’s headlines can make the world seem like a scary, dark place, so just how do you build that compassion muscle in your kids when the world around them seems to be headed the opposite direction sometimes? Here are 10 things you can do to make your kids more compassionate — which will hopefully make for a better future world for all of us.
1. Set Rules and Consequences
Boundaries and consequences might seem counterproductive, but structure is key to building compassion. Boundaries and consequences create a safe environment for kids with clear expectations, which give children the tools and understanding of how to get their needs met. When one’s own needs are met, one is able to consider the needs of others. So establishing firm expectations in your home, and set consequences for when those expectations are met or not met is of vital importance for empowering children to foresee the results of their actions, both for themselves and for others and make choices about their behavior.
2. Random Acts of Kindness
It may seem like a small gesture to buy an extra sandwich to give to the homeless man outside of the grocery store, but it will speak volumes to your child. So will volunteering in your community garden, animal shelter, or food bank. Even giving up a prime parking spot, buying coffee for the person in line behind you, sharing excess garden produce with neighbors, or sending a love note in a lunchbox will have a lasting impression on your child. Teach children that they are a part of the world and that we all have a responsibility to care for every creature in it. Brainstorm with your children ways to make others happy or the world a better place, and then make a game of implementing their ideas with them. Discuss and put into practice ways they can make a broader global impact, such as recycling or repurposing, going plant based, or walking or biking rather than driving. Teach the value of giving, of doing good, of living and acting consciously and deliberately, without expectation of receiving.
3. Mind Manners
“You know, I asked him about that. He said, good manners are just a way of showing other people we have respect for them. See, I didn’t know that, I thought it was just a way of acting all superior.” — Blast From The Past
I saw this movie years ago, but this simple line has always stuck with me and become a motto in my household. Like many others, I guess I assumed please and thank you was just something we did, drilled into us from infant-hood because of societal custom. But teaching your children to view manners in this light, as a sign of respect for another, gives them a whole new purpose. Not only are you giving respect to another every time you use them, but that thank you, that smile, that ‘you go first’ gesture is a small compliment when they receive it themselves! Win win!
You can’t go overboard with good manners. Teach your children to use them and why it’s important. And then model that behavior with your children, with your partner, with strangers. Set the table, put your napkin in your lap, and thank everyone for joining you for dinner, even if you’re the one who toiled in the kitchen. Always shake hands when greeting someone. Say please when you ask your children to do a chore. Practice gratitude everywhere, always, and watch how that gratitude naturally becomes a part of your child.
4. Highlight Good
Always point out good in the world, in your family and with your children. Recognize accomplishments, kindness, and responsible choices, and then discuss everyone’s feelings about it, and be gracious. Generosity, in feeling and in practice, is contagious and praising compassionate behavior is a surefire way to increase it.
5. Monitor Electronics
There is no way around it: kids today are inundated with media. It is very important to set rules regarding when it is appropriate to use electronic media and what sort of use is acceptable. But don’t just ignore your child’s exposure to TV and the Internet. Even though you can’t fully restrict it, it can be a very powerful tool to open up a dialogue about the world. Be aware of what your children see and do on TV or online, and discuss what they experience, how they feel about it, how others feel about it and what actions, if any, can be taken. Question how each character on a TV show might be feeling and why. Start a dialogue about trending twitter hashtags or viral news stories. If used properly, electronic and social media can be a way for us to connect with the world. So don’t be afraid of it, join in with your kids and teach them to use it responsibly.
6. Expect Help
Everyone lives in your home, so everyone should help with the management of the home. When you set the tone of community in your home, you set it within your child. Give children chores to do, not to be rewarded, but simply because it is part of being a family. The reward is a thank you, or the reciprocal help later on. And of course, always remember to include those manners!
7. Teach the Value and Management of Anger
Anger is a basic human emotion and we all feel it, but being able to properly manage anger is a skill we must learn. Don’t ignore your child’s anger. Acknowledge it, understand it, and help them to properly process it. Discuss what made your child angry and what would make him or her feel better. Ask how the other people involved in the situation might be feeling. Brainstorm productive ways to steer angry energy into something else. For instance, give your child an angry journal to express their feelings, why they felt that way, and how they might be able to feel differently. Tell them that getting their thoughts and feelings down in words or pictures acknowledges those feelings and then releases them, so they don’t have to stay in their head or heart.
8. Give and Get Real Face Time
Our eyes are the most expressive part of our bodies, and it is difficult to accurately connect to another person without them. So make it a point to always look into another’s face when speaking or listening. It can be tempting to finish that email while helping with math homework, but your full attention is necessary. Like manners, it teaches respect for another, and a respected child is a respectful child. It can be hard, with our busy, distraction filled lives, but make a point to have 100 percent undivided facetime with your child every day.
9. Talk it Out
Enough can’t be said for communication! Label emotions and talk about why we feel them and why others feel them. Discuss all emotional aspects of any given situation. Celebrate difference, and try to encourage your children to come to their own informed and educated decisions about the world. Explain why you hold the opinions and beliefs you do and then ask your children to explain their own, and listen with compassion. Knowledge is power and thoughtful discourse, even about differing opinions is key to raising empathetic, understanding, and emotionally intelligent children.
10. Be Compassionate
It may be a heavy weight to bear, but like it or not, our kids model our behavior. So do whatever you can to be compassionate toward your children. From hugs and kisses and unconditional love, to modeling compassionate behavior with your significant other, your friends, family, animals, and community. Be sure the things you say or do in the presence of your children are things you would be comfortable with your children doing. There is nothing more shocking than to hear your own words come out of your child’s mouth. And it will happen…ask any parent. So make sure those words and actions are always the best they can be.
Image source: Robert Lawton/Wikimedia Commons