During my 13 year career as a teacher and school administrator, I often thought about the purpose of education. What were the essential lessons and skills I needed to impart to my students? And how could I best guide them in becoming successful adults? Initially, fresh out of college and filled with optimism, I thought it was imperative to teach children to think creatively and to question the world and its rules. Over the years as I became bogged down in bureaucratic standards and goals, I focused more on measurable assessments of subject knowledge and basic skills. By the end of my career as a schoolteacher, I had come to realize that one of the most important things we can teach our children is compassion.
A very wise mentor of mine early in my career told me “Parents say I just want my children to be happy, I wish they would say I just want my child to be kind.” But “kindness” or “compassion” can be a tough skill to master. In fact, it’s developmentally normal for small children to be focused on themselves, and it isn’t even an appropriate developmental expectation for kids to focus on other people’s feelings and experiences until around seven years of age.
In other words, if your preschooler won’t share, has meltdowns, or seems jealous of her baby sister, no matter how many times you try to guide them, then you’re not doing anything wrong! That said, there are plenty of skills parents can encourage to exercise their child’s ability to show empathy and kindness in a variety of situations. Here, how to help model compassion for preschool kids and older, so it becomes a regular part of their lives.
How to help preschoolers understand compassion
Mine! No, mine! Hear that? Those toddler disagreements are incredibly normal because young children are still learning how to regulate their own emotions. Because of that, they may find it almost impossible to see beyond their own wants and needs. At this age, learning to share may be light years away, developmentally. But, even though the concept of compassion may be tough for preschoolers to grasp, modeling compassionate behavior and giving kids the opportunities to practice it are the building blocks in making the concept stick. It also helps young kids become more and more aware of the world around them. Parents can begin to encourage compassion and model kindness through practical daily habits which will be built upon as children develop the ability to empathize with others.
Model your own emotions
If you feel sad, angry or excited, explain why and encourage your child to talk to you about your feelings. Discussing our feelings is a perfect step for small children to begin to understand that other people have different thoughts and feelings than the ones they have.
Rethink the way you share compliments
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of dishing out trite praise like “good girl” or “way to go!” Instead, explain exactly what behavior made you pleased or proud and, crucially, why. For instance, say “I really like the way you are petting the dog so gently, look how much she likes that,” or “it was so kind of you to ask John if he was feeling better, that must have made him feel really special.”
Have some go-to phrases on hand
Create helpful reminder phrases that can stop unkind behaviors in their tracks. In my classroom and now with my own pre-school child, we say “gentle hands and kind words.” Simply saying this aloud when children are starting to get too rambunctious can help to focus their energy away from potentially hurtful behavior.
Be a role model
If a child at preschool or in the park is crying, show compassion yourself and say “oh no, that friend has hurt his knee, that must sting.” Small children are excellent at mimicking. If you speak softly with care, concern, and empathy, they will begin to copy you.
Learn to apologize
Parents are not perfect. If you yell at your children or lose your patience, take a moment and then apologize. Make sure you explain why you were angry or frustrated and talk about what you could have done instead of shouting.
How to encourage compassion in elementary age kids
By elementary school, compassion and kindness have become something that kids understand, both in their lives and in the lives of others. They recognize when someone (or themselves) has been unkind, and realize that kind actions can make them feel good, too. This is even if a kind action involves some sort of small sacrifice on their part, like giving away a toy or snack.
As children move through grade school, they become more sophisticated at reading other people’s body language and social cues. They start to recognize when they could have been kinder or more inclusive in a group and begin to develop a strong sense of justice. They can seem idealistic in their world view which is a great time to encourage kindness and social or global responsibility.
Give your child responsibility
Start to give your big kid special jobs that they can take pride in, especially if they involve a caring aspect. One example could be asking them to take care of a plant or small pet with your guidance, like a fish or a hamster. Or, let them help you to care for a smaller sibling by bringing diapering supplies from another room or singing a song to soothe the baby.
Talk about why “bad” behavior is hurtful
When children make a mistake and hurt a friend or family member, focus on the hurt party’s feelings rather than just a rule being broken. Ask “When you hit your brother how do you think he feels?” Then address how your child intends to make amends. Saying sorry often isn’t enough. Children need to think of a way to show their friend that it won’t happen again.
Be critical of media they consume
Whether it’s TV, movies, songs or stories, talk to your children about character’s motivations and emotions. Listen to songs together and ask your child how the music makes them feel and why. Discuss their favorite shows and why characters behave in a certain way. Maybe ask: “Why do you think Anna is sad Elsa won’t play with her?” or “Do you think Maui is listening to Moana, and how does Moana feel?”
Engage within your community
Kindness starts right where we are. Show your children that you value your neighbors, be courteous and polite to store clerks, restaurant staff and people you interact with on a regular basis. Also, avoid gossiping in front of your kids. Children are always listening!
Make it fun!
As your child gets older introduce the concept of random acts of kindness. Challenge them and yourself to complete one gesture of compassion per day – this could be playing with a new friend, giving a compliment, helping someone with a chore, or donating to a good cause. At the end of the day, discuss your challenge and the impact of your actions.
Compassion doesn’t happen automatically or by accident. We have to teach our children through our own actions and in everyday ways that being kind is the most important skill we can learn. Kindness builds communities, strengthens families and friendships, and helps to create thoughtful adults who can really make a meaningful difference.
Fiona Tapp is a freelance writer and educator. Her work has been featured on The Washington Post, HuffPost, Today’s Parent and many others. She is an expert in the field of Pedagogy, a teacher of 13 years and Master’s degree holder in Education. She writes about a variety of topics including parenting, education, and travel.