Three Ways to Instill Compassion at Home
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD
Developing compassion in children involves all adults stepping up to do their parts – families, teachers, clergy, and community leaders. But we know from research that one of the most important places that compassion is learned is in the home. In Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation, college students like Danielle, said their parents instilled compassion at home, an inner strength that guided their actions as they became teenagers. Ways families instill compassion include:
1. Provide Opportunities to Practice Compassion
Compassion cannot be learned by talking about it. Children must practice compassion in their daily lives. Difficult encounters with family members, classmates, and friends present opportunities for kids to put themselves in another’s shoes – to practice empathy. They also learn compassion when they practice giving without the need to gain anything in return, when they are with people or animals who are suffering, and when they experience the internal reward of feeling appreciated.
2. Help Children Understand and Cope with Anger
Anger is one of the greatest hindrances to compassion because it can overwhelm children’s minds and spirit. Yet there are times when anger yields energy and determination. The Dalai Lama, in his article Compassion and the Individual, suggests we investigate the value of our anger. We can help children by asking how their anger will help solve a problem or make their lives happier. We can help them see both the positive and negative sides of anger, and how holding onto anger leads to unreliable and destructive outcomes.
3. Teach Children to Self-Regulate
Antidotes to anger come through compassion and self-regulation, the ability to stop or delay an action rather than behaving impulsively. Children should understand that regulating their anger is not a sign of weakness. Instead, a compassionate attitude is an internal strength. Praise children when they regulate themselves, making sure they understand the power of their calmness and patience. Always encourage elementary and middle school children to talk about their anger with a supportive adult. Teaching compassion doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to aggression in others. We all know that children get bullied and are often not treated fairly by peers. If remaining calm only encourages more aggression, then we must also help children take a strong stand without retaliatory anger.
Inspiring a spirit of volunteering in elementary and middle school helps kids develop their compassionate muscles – muscles they will use over and over again as they reach adolescence and adulthood. Once you help your children begin this process, make sure they get lots of practice month after month. The world can never get too much compassion!
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is founder of Roots of Action and author of Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. A developmental psychologist, she writes for Psychology Today and Edutopia on positive youth development, K-12 education, and family-school-community partnerships.