As parents, we’ve probably said, “Play nicely” or “Be sweet to your brother.” Undoubtedly, we want to raise kind, thoughtful, empathetic kids, right? But can compassion be taught?
Jessica Ferguson thinks so. She and her 9-year-old son Cooper recently made lavender-infused soaps together, then hand-delivered them to the residents at a nearby assisted living care center. “I want to teach Cooper to have a heart for others,” says the Dallas mom. “We attend church every Sunday, but there’s nothing as powerful as practicing what you preach.”
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Earlier this year, Good Morning America put kids across the country to the test with the Great Kindness Challenge, encouraging schools and youth groups nationwide to perform as many acts of kindness (from a list of 50) as possible in one week. Some acts were as simple as complimenting five people; others asked kids to come out of their comfort zones and step up for someone in need. The motive? To create happier, healthier environments, which aren’t actually taught, experts say, but learned.
And apparently, we parents need to step up our game. A recent study found that 80 percent of kids say Mom and Dad taught them that personal happiness and achievements were more important than being kind to others — yikes!
Kindness should be the universal language we help our children develop from birth, says Melissa Opheim, chief operating officer at ACH Child and Family Services in Fort Worth.
“Kids innately want to be kind to others, but I do not know that they always see those behaviors modeled,” adds Barbara Shelton, ACH chief development officer.
Here’s how Opheim and Shelton, and other experts, recommend to demonstrate empathy for your kids:
Lead by example. Take a meal to a family who recently had a baby or make and pass out boxes of supplies (including toothbrushes, deodorant and restaurant gift cards) to the homeless. Model authentic compassion by treating friends, acquaintances, colleagues, even the grocery store clerk and server, with genuine respect.
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Use kind words. And help kids navigate the conflicting messages they may encounter, suggests Dr. Susan Istre, director and owner of the Center for Social Success in Dallas. It is important to teach tolerance of others’ views, beliefs and feelings. Many TV shows (even cartoons) use humor to make fun of people’s differences. As you watch as a family, point out that this behavior is mean-spirited and unacceptable. And use it as a teaching moment. Ask kids what they think it might feel like to be in that person’s shoes. Reflective discussions like this help children appreciate different perspectives.
Praise your child. Thank a child for altruistic kindness such as going out of their way to help someone; don’t reward everyday helpfulness like cleaning up after dinner, which is expected as a family contribution.
Recognize weaknesses. “Sometimes kids appear unkind if they are shy, do not make eye contact, do not smile or are nervous and anxious about making an overture,” Istre says. “For some kids, social skills have to be taught just like any other subject.”
Acknowledge mistakes. Kids are still learning, and developmentally, they may be self-centered. Encourage them to do their best to act kindly, but recognize when those efforts fall short. Show them the power of apology through your own actions. “Admit when your behavior has been unkind, own your mistakes, apologize and try to do better,” explains Rabbi Elana Zelony of Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson.
Give back to the community. Volunteer together to help widen a child’s worldview, teach them gratitude and build an awareness and sensitivity to others’ struggles.
That’s exactly what Ferguson is trying to do. “I want Cooper to know how good it feels to give selflessly to others,” she says. And he did. He got that warm-and-fuzzy sensation when his homemade soaps were met with smiles. “This life is about the legacy of love and kindness we leave behind,” his mom says.