How do you teach compassion to your kids? My flippant answer is that as human beings they’re wired with a conscience and one facet of a conscience is the ability to feel empathy and sympathy for other humans. But think about how we power through our days now: Kids go to school, to activities, to more activities, home for more school — beyond the “Awareness” bake sale or the photo op ladling soup at the shelter, when do kids get to learn that we humans are morally bound to feel for and to help one another? (That’s help with time and physical effort, not money. Money is necessary of course but it’s not the tie that binds.)
Unfortunately the most common opportunity to teach kids compassion is in an emergency: sickness or death or an act of God. There are some fun opportunities too, like helping someone move, or taking a meal to a family with a new baby, but real compassion goes beyond just helping out; as my cousin told my grandma who was fretting yesterday about all the trouble she was giving everyone: “Family does. We’re in a crisis situation. Family does.”
This is how you teach kids compassion: You take them with you to help in crisis situations.
You don’t leave them with your husband. You don’t put them in the back room to watch TV. You don’t say, “They’re too little; they can’t help/understand/see this.”
Obviously there are exceptions to this — don’t expose your kids to anything horrific or dangerous.
Do give your kids the chance to feel for someone else, to really work to make life better for the people closest to them. You’ll be amazed at what kids are capable of when they’re allowed out of their bubble.
I took the kids with me yesterday to help my grandma get things out of her house and clean them. She had an electrical fire last week and found out the hard way that her insurance does not cover cleaning or replacing any of her belongings. I really didn’t have a choice whether to take the kids as I don’t let anyone watch them except my grandma. My plan was to put them in the back room to watch TV at my aunt’s house (next door to Grandma’s) while we worked.
I told the kids we’d be there a long time, maybe all day, and that they really needed to be on their very best behavior so that they wouldn’t worry Cathy (my cousin) or aunt or grandma. I didn’t plan for them to help at all.
I knew they were curious about what Grandma’s house looks like now so I told them to take a deep breath and hold it, run in and look, then run back out and breathe. Of course they stopped short when they saw how awful everything was, and gasped and tried to see the hole in the roof which was just a big black void as there was no electricity — I think that was more scary than seeing the actual hole in the ceiling.
They ran back outside and I thought the’d start complaining — “Ew, it stinks!” “What a mess!” etc. Instead, they started helping. They followed me into the house over and over, carrying Grandma’s clothes out and over to my aunt’s house. At first I stupidly tried to dissuade them from helping: I don’t want you breathing the smoke in there. Just stay at Bonnie’s.
“Please, please let me help! I’m not too little!” pleaded Jameson.
I’m so happy she gave me the chance to correct my major parenting error by not backing down.
The kids did their fair share of TV watching too — Jefferson said, “You know that phrase ‘too much of a good thing’? We had too much of a good thing today with the TV.” But they both worked hard at jobs they could do — like taking the clothes out and washing down hangers and asked what else they could do to help. Do. Family does.
I am sorry for all of the trouble my grandma has to go through because of the fire. But I’m thankful for the opportunity to learn compassion this crisis offers my kids. And I’m thankful that my persistent kids didn’t let me miss that opportunity.