Daily Opportunities for Teaching Compassion to Our Children
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them
humanity cannot survive” Dalia Lama
Surprisingly to me, my children and their peers at an Australian school were all abuzz about the recent US election. I was in the playground after school the day the election results came in and was surprised how many children were following the results and expressing loudly their reactions. As children, and many adults do, the kids were regurgitating the most sensational headlines from the campaign and disparaging Trump accordingly. I am not naive enough to think that the opinions expressed were independent of parents views, however what struck me was how strong the children felt about some of the most outrageous comments that had been expressed in the campaign, particularly those that were portrayed as racist, sexist and non-inclusive. This exhibition of preteen self-righteousness was heartening to me, realising that this next generation cared about these issues and felt a level of injustice around them. Was this compassion I was witnessing? Talking about this with my daughter later in the evening she suggestested that people lack compassion when they are scared of what they don’t know. She then went on to give examples from a recently read book about a child who was mistreated because of his physical appearance, but once other kids got to know him this fear and mistreatment subsided. I think this discussion demonstrates how children are capable of compassionate understanding and behaving. To this end I think it is important for us to create opportunities for our children to learn about the issues that scare them, opening their minds and hearts to become consciously compassionate, and kind citizens of the world.
Teaching our children compassion can occur in really simply ways on a daily basis in our own homes, below are some readily accessible examples that can be adapted to suit any family.
1.Reading Together. There are some fabulous books around that are entertaining yet thought provoking and prod children to look past the superficial. Reading these together provides opportunities for questions and content discussion. Some of my personal favourites include; Mr Stink by David Walliams, Wonder by Raquel J. Palacio, I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World by Malala Yousafzai, The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson. Each of these books encourage the reader to think about the experience of others and consider the impact of actions.
- Encourage Inclusivity. Talk to your children about what is happening in the classroom/ playground, are there any children who are being left out. Encourage them to make an effort to get to know these kids. When children talk about school friends they are having trouble with encourage them to think about what might be happening for the other child, what their perception of the situation may be, is the child experiencing anything challenging in their life. Considering the motivations and feelings of others helps your child develop empathy.
- Expression of Gratitude Expressing and feeling gratitude allows children to appreciate how fortunate they are and consider that many children around the world go without. Gratitude should not be limited to material items but also include things such as family, love, education, health, clean water, blue skies. This can be done as a family over the dinner table, in a gratitude journal or as a bedtime ritual.
- Acknowledge Differences – Within your home acknowledge the differences in strengths and traits amongst each of the family members. Teach your children that everyone is unique and individual and that these differences are to be celebrated and encouraged. Observe how the diversity works and contributes to a harmonious, fun and exciting household. Talk about the blandness of sameness and expand this discussion outside of the family parameters and include different cultures, religions and beliefs.
- Encourage Compassion Toward Self – So often children and adults alike place very high expectations on themselves to do their best and as such be the best, with very little scope for error. In order to be compassionate toward others it helps if we can be compassionate toward ourselves, let your children know that it is ok to make mistakes, or to do something just for fun. Show them that you are able to be kind to yourself when things don’t quite pan out, lead by example. Let them know they are welcome to ask for help or nurturing.
- Have a Cause – Research has demonstrated that the positive areas of the brain that light up when receiving money are equally or more stimulated when people give money. Allowing children to choose a cause to support and save money for is a great compassion builder. Once kids have chosen a charity, they may wish to support this by donating goods or time, having a household “swear jar” or raising awareness. Researching a cause at the beginning of the year and understanding how the contribution will be used is educational and thought provoking. This simple act of giving can generate a lot of warm fuzzy feelings.
Adopting one or two of the strategies above will allow your children to build on their empathy and compassion, which will also increase feelings of positivity and understanding within your home. Each of these strategies also provide opportunities for children to feel connected to you as you engage in the activities and discussions together. This connectedness provides valuable bonds that will allow your children to approach you if they are feeling fearful or scared of something they don’t understand. It is in these moments we can help prevent the development of prejudice, racism and sexism and hopefully instead instill, compassion, kindness and understanding.