Be the change you wish to see in the world...

- Gandhi

Friday, November 2, 2012

Creating Compassionate Children

Teaching kids to be compassionate
2009 GoofyFoot Photography

As a mother, I have many wishes for the characteristics my children possess - now, even for my three year-old son - and as they get older, becoming independent adults.  Among the many, 'compassionate' tops the list.  I guess this is no surprise coming from a vegan...and I mean compassion not just for animals, but people too.  Merriam-Webster defines compassionate as the sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it.  I believe compassion must be bred in our children if we are to build the leaders of the future who are going to solve the world's crises facing us now - world hunger, war, environmental destruction.  It makes perfect sense to me - help others who are less fortunate and the world becomes a better place.  This is where I break into song: "It's A Small World!"

Ok, I may be in "Stephanie's World," as my husband likes to remind me, but as I hold myself to compassionate behavior, I also want my children to think of others and identify suffering (or less fortunate circumstances) and have an innate desire to help in some way.  I want them to believe and understand that no gesture is too small to help others and above all, that it is always important to think of others.  As parents, many of us feel it is our mission to create better lives for our children than we had as kids.  And if your children are half as fortunate as mine, and I hope they are, we have succeeded by many measures.  However, I strongly believe that part of our jobs as parents should also be to ensure that our children realize the amazing fortune they possess and begin to realize that others do not have it as good...this is also a great way to instill another characteristic - 'appreciative' (hee hee).

The question for me becomes, "How do I create compassion in my kids?"  I think about that a lot.  A LOT.  Here are some strategies that my husband and I have put into practice in our home.  I hope they inspire compassion in your family.

  • Adopt a Pet - Anyone who has ever loved and cared for a household animal companion knows what a meaningful experience it is, especially for children.  A child and animal's capacity for love is never-ending, which is why I suppose they become fast friends.  When it came time for our family to get a dog, we knew we would adopt.  Visiting the SPCA spoke volumes to my kids and taught my children in ways that I never could dictate about the mistreatment of pets and the sad circumstances that sometimes befall on people that prevent them from maintaining their pets, forcing them to abandon them or give them up for adoption.  Lesson taught and family pet welcomed into our home - check and check!
  • Give to Charity - My family is Jewish so we practice something called tzedakah, which is Hebrew for righteousness, fairness or justice.  Essentially, it is the responsibility to give aid, assistance and money to the less fortunate or worthwhile causes.  We help our six and nine year-olds practice this by evenly dividing any money they receive in gifts or allowance into three buckets: share, spend, and save.  Moonjar provides excellent resources on this concept.  We brainstorm and research causes and charities to receive their "share" money and help them to decide how to best share it.
  • Volunteer - I started Girl Scout troops for both of my daughters with the sole intention of instilling service into their lives regularly.  One of the many benefits of their troops is that it has spilled over into our family activities.  Read to kids in impoverished communities.  Participate in collection drives.  Serve food at a homeless shelter.  Visit senior centers.  There are so many ways to help, and it is easy to find activities for the whole family with groups like VolunteerMatch and many others.
  • Make it a Game - Our family loves Boom Boom Cards.  Their mission is to change the world with random acts of kindness.  You pick a card, do the act, then pass it on to someone else to continue the chain.  You can track it online to see how far your act of kindness travels.  They have Family and Teen editions.
  • Read - Reading might just be my answer for everything I want to teach my kids.  There is always a book out there that says it better than I ever could, and I nurture my family's love for books at the same time.  There are books on kindness and compassion, but there are also biographies for children that allow kids to read about the amazing people in the world who have done incredible things for others.  A few years ago, my husband bought the beautiful coffee table book They Changed the World: 200 Icons Who Made A Difference. He likes to pull it out every now and again, pick a random person from the book, and read their page to the kids.  Check out the Who Was? series  or visit your local library for an array of options to choose from.
  • Visit an Animal Sanctuary - My girl scout troops and I visited Farm Sanctuary's Animal Acres in Acton, CA last year and it was life changing and enriching.  Have you ever seen a child pet a several thousand pound pig or hold a baby sheep?  Yep, pretty amazing.  And the conversations it creates about animals, where they live, and how they become food are important to helping our little ones figure out who they are and who they want to our world should be.
How do you create compassion in your children?  How do you embody compassion for yourself?