Seven Steps to a Compassionate Child

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Most children operate in a Me-First world. Yet, as we seek to raise fully functioning citizens of the world, we must help them mature beyond their Me-First mentality. Some seem to have the emotional IQ of a kumquat, while others seem to intuitively know that harsh words will hurt someone’s feelings.

Ideally, instilling compassion starts at home, teaching each of our seven sons how words or actions make other family members feel. A terrific book on this topic is Raising Compassionate, Courageous Children in a Violent World written by Dr. Janice Cohn. She is the Chief of Consultation and Education at the Department of Psychiatry at the Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.

Dr. Cohn’s research gives parents a step-by-step approach to raising kids to become emotionally intelligent, compassionate citizens.

1) Love and Cherish Your Child. Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” In order to have compassionate children, you need to extend each child an abundance of grace. This should be a shower of kindness and thoughtful deeds with an extra helping of compassion when school is rough or playmates are unkind.

Dr. Cohn says, “They need to feel secure in the fact that they are cared for and loved despite their mistakes and misbehaviors. This makes it possible for children to develop an inner security that their own emotional needs will be taken care of. It’s only then that they can learn to be responsive to the emotional needs of others.”

2) Give Clear Guidelines for Acceptable and Unacceptable Behavior. Once children learn that it’s unacceptable to speak sharply, loudly or unkindly to either siblings or parents, they learn how to treat others. But this also applies to parents. I cannot speak harshly to my children and expect them not to do the same.

Dr. Cohn says, ”parents who are loving but permissive and do not set limits on their children’s behavior toward others have children who tend to be more selfish and less inclined to help others than are youngsters whose parents provide discipline.”

3) Help Them Understand the Consequences of Actions. Don’t assume that our children understand how deeply words can cut and actions can impact others. Drew Barrymore still talks about the bullying and name calling from elementary school classmates who called her a “pig nose.” Words wound.

4) Discipline through Reasoning.  Strict, authoritarian adults tend to punish without explanation and demand obedience. They may have children who outwardly conform to the “rules” but inwardly rebel. We care more about our children’s hearts and emotional intelligence than an outward obedience, therefore, discipline is a talked through process.

Dr. Cohn says, “When students are given explanations for household rules and are allowed to voice their opinions and even disagree (though the parents have the last word), research suggests that they become more adept at exercising social skills, relating to others, and coping with life’s problems.”

5) Show by Example. This year, because our children are older, they were able to be involved in service to their community. Our twins and dad spent one day assisting in a construction project to rebuild a man’s business that was destroyed by the April tornados in Alabama. They also went to feed the homeless and spent two weeks in Slovakia working at an English camp. Our church often assists the local homeless shelter by providing diapers, canned goods, a Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas presents for needy children. As parents we need to keep our eyes open for ways to demonstrate compassion and helping those in our communities who are suffering. Needs are all around us. It just takes a thoughtful approach to involving our children in other’s lives.

6) Give Children Frequent Opportunities to Perform Small Acts of Kindness. It’s not just the big things that make an impact on others; it’s often the kind word, the compassionate hug or the listening ear. When our children attend a family event, we often prep them ahead of time to ask Aunt Betty Sue what she’s reading or what she especially enjoys doing in her garden. Most children are clueless about how to talk to people in a nursing home. When we visit uncle W.A., the twins are very comfortable sitting down and talking with him, because we’ve given them three questions to get the conversation started. These skills aren’t inborn and have to be taught, yet most parents miss this simple thing.

Dr. Cohn says, “The research shows that people who initially become involved in helping behavior, intending to help in a very limited way, often unexpectedly become committed to what they are doing and end up helping in very extensive ways.”

7)  Emphasize the Power to Positively Impact Others. Some parents major in trying to catch their children doing something wrong, so that they can scold them. Although that’s an essential part of parenting, how often do you try to catch your children doing something right, so that you can praise them? By doing this, we reinforce one of the most rewarding things in life — the power to change someone’s life. Our children have grown up with a grandmother and 105-year-old great-grandmother who lives next door. Every day of their lives they’ve seen either Mom or Dad caring for Granny or helping Grandma Miller out with a home improvement project in her home. They’re often involved as well. Every day they see the opportunity to make a life better by the practical things we do for them.

Last week when I was taking Andrew to work, I asked him to hop out and grab Grandma Miller’s garbage can to bring it to the curb. It’s something he did willingly, because he’s had a lifetime of helping others.

In fact, I’m so proud of Andrew’s compassion for a friend. On Thanksgiving Eve he took his hard-earned money out of his checking account to bail a friend out of jail. He gave him the gift of a holiday dinner and freedom. Of course, it cost Andrew a week’s wages and a sleepless night, because the friend was released at 2:00 a.m. He knew that there was a cost to compassion — cost of time, money and sleep — but he willingly paid the price.

That’s why this month, he’s my hero.


6 thoughts on “Seven Steps to a Compassionate Child

    • Cherie, I stopped by your office yesterday but didn’t see you. Briefly, Nonviolent Communication is a method developed by Marshall Rosenberg that employs language and internal dialogue in a way that focuses on needs based connection, akin to the work of Carl Rogers. I have seen it described as an example of applied peace linguistics. It’s currency of connection is self awareness and empathy, and its methods make achieving real empathy easier. I would enjoy talking about this further if you like. I see that my space here is up!

  1. As a family therapist going into my 42nd year of counseling, I applaud your superior compassion article. I’d add one thing that turbo charges compassion development. From early on parents need to develop feeling language and communication. Before disciplining, validate feelings: “You should have gotten angry when your sister grabbed your truck. But let’s find a way to deal with your upset feelings without hitting.” Your child feels understood and then he or she is better prepared for the discipline part of parenting. Thanks again for the practical advice. Gary M Unruh MSW, Author

  2. THis calls to mind the work of Daniel Goleman on empathy and how it can be taught to kids.