How do you teach your kids to be compassionate?
Is compassion something we need to purposefully explain to our children? Don’t humans come hardwired with a conscience and the capacity to connect to other humans with love, empathy, and sympathy?
I do believe that we have a built-in drive to act with compassion, but we’ve done a bang up job of deactivating this essential part of our kids. Think about how we power through our days now: Kids go to school, go to after school activities, go home and do more school, head out for more activities.
Weekdays, weekends — what’s the difference? Homework and scheduled activities have shoved their way into what should be downtime. Remember when you were a kid and school was just a blip in your day?
When did school become a lifestyle?
Our kids are around people every waking moment — how can they be disconnected?
We must spend more time developing our kids’ Emotional Intelligence and less time drilling standardized testing skills.
We have stolen so much of our kids’ days that they don’t even have time for self care and personal development; we’ve closed up all holes in their schedules that might give them the freedom to act when Opportunity knocks and asks for help. Beyond the “Awareness” bake sale or the photo op ladling soup at the shelter, when do kids get the chance to learn that we humans are morally bound to feel for and to help one another?
(I’m talking about real help: personally giving other people our time, emotional support, and physical effort — not help by throwing money at a problem. Money is necessary to successfully provide many forms of help, but money is not the tie that binds.)
Unfortunately, the most common opening to teach kids compassion is Emergency: sickness or death or an act of God. There are some fun opportunities too, like helping friends 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 about all the trouble she was giving everyone:
“Family does. We’re in a crisis situation. Family does.”
This is how you teach your 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 — don’t expose your kids to anything horrific or dangerous.
Do give your kids the chance to feel for someone else, to do real work to make life better for the people closest to them, for a friend of a friend, for a stranger.
You’ll be amazed at what your kids are capable of if you dare to poke a pin in their bubbles.
A faulty laundry room fan caused a fire in my grandma’s home. Thankfully, she got out safely (even though she delayed her exit to use a fire extinguisher on the blaze, which act saved her home but displeased the firefighters).
My grandma found out the hard way that her insurance did not cover cleaning or replacing any of her belongings. It was up to our family to do a lot of the things you’d expect the insurance company to hire out, so I headed over to help.
I really didn’t have a choice whether to take my kids with me since I don’t let anyone watch them except my grandma. My plan was to put them in the back room at my aunt’s house (next door to Grandma’s) to watch TV while we adults worked. I told the kids we’d be there a long time, maybe all day, and that they needed to be on their very best behavior so that they wouldn’t worry Cathy (my cousin), or Aunt Bonnie, or Grandma. I didn’t plan for them to help at all.
I knew they were curious about what Grandma’s house looked like after the fire 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. They gasped, and tried to see the hole in the ceiling — which was just a big black void because the electricity was shut off. I think that dark nothingness was more scary to them than seeing the hole itself would have been.
They ran back outside and I thought they’d start complaining: “Ew, it stinks!” “What a mess!” Instead, they started helping. They followed me into and out of the house over and over, carrying Grandma’s clothes over to my aunt’s house. At first I stupidly tried to dissuade them from helping: I don’t want you breathing in the smoke. Get out of here. Just stay at Aunt Bonnie’s.
Jameson pleaded: “Please, please let me help! I’m not too little!”
She gave me the shake up that allowed me to correct my major parenting mistake: she wouldn’t back down and she was absolutely right. I accepted my kids’ help.
They did a great deal 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: they made a contest out of who could take the biggest armload of clothes from house to house, they washed down hangers, and they asked what else they could do to help.
Do. Family does.
I am sorry for all of the trouble my grandma had to go through because of the fire. But I’m thankful for the opportunity to learn compassion that crisis offered my kids. I’m fortunate that my persistent kids didn’t let me miss that chance: when Opportunity knocked, I let my kids open the door for her.
Have you let your kids take an opportunity to show compassion? Share your story in the comments!