Teaching children compassion

As some of you know, I am on the board of the Kids’ Compassion Project. In preparation for a recent event, I wanted to create a discussion guide to briefly explain to parents how to teach children to be compassionate. You’d think after this much advanced training, I could hammer out a few bullet points (ha!). I’m still chewing on this but here’s what I know so far.

What is compassion?

With children, it’s useful to have a simple, straightforward definition. I use compassion is caring in action.

In my compassion class for adults, I used a much richer definition that benefits from the wisdom of Compassion Cultivation Training, Thupten Jinpa, Kelly McGonigal, and others. I include it below because I find it useful for my own understand of the skills and steps of compassion. When I feel challenged or want to shut down, it’s useful to look at this definition and see where I’m getting stuck.

Compassion entails:

1. Awareness and recognition of suffering

2. Feeling of concern for, and connection to the one who is suffering

3. Desire to relieve that suffering

4. Belief that you can make a difference

5. Willingness to respond or take action

6. Warm glow/sense of satisfaction

How do we learn it?

Hone awareness to compassion.

There’s a joke about an elderly fish yelling out to two young fish, “How’s the water?” The young fish turns to her friend, “What’s water?” Compassion, kindness, and gratitude are all around you. Start looking for them.

  • Turn down the volume on the part of your brain evolved to be critical, vigilant to threat, and hyperaware of potential social exclusion. Breathe, meditate, pray. Even moving at a sloth pace for 10 seconds can jolt you out of our habitual doomsday narration.

  • Fill your social media feed with inspiring and uplifting stories of human love and compassion.

  • Notice, savor, and express thanks for the kindness you receive. Instead of a 5 second thank you, take 30 seconds to enjoy it.

Practice acting with love.

Pema Chodron encourages us to focus on one teeny step ahead of our current comfort zone. You don’t leap up a mountain, you hike up one gentle, trudging step at a time.

Keep charging your battery.

To create a sustaining practice, a lifetime of kindness and compassion, you must hydrate (both literally and metaphorically). My mentor says, the heart feeds itself first.

  • Inhale before you exhale. Figure out what fills you up (being in nature, connecting with something bigger than yourself, being alone, etc) and do it.

  • Practice asking for help and enjoy the kindness you receive.

  • Practice saying no (or not now) when you need to care for yourself before draining your battery further.

How do we teach it?

Model kindness, love, compassion and gratitude for our children.

  • Highlight the final step of compassion – how good it can feel to offer help or comfort.

  • Show your kids how to elongate a thank you. Say thank you, what you’re thankful for, and why you’re thankful, e.g. “I want to say thank you to Daddy. He made a special trip to get bread for dinner so I could take time to go for a run. I felt tired and sad from my day and my run gave me a break and helped me feel excited about our evening together. Thanks babe, tonight is better because of what you did.”

Create opportunities for children to practice compassion.

  • Connect with non-profits or religious groups in your community that offer volunteer and service hours. In Colorado, we have Kids’ Compassion Project. Nationally, Random Acts of Kindness offers monthly missions.

  • A Pinterest search will show you a ton of great parenting ideas to do at home such as the kindness advent calendar.

Teach the three steps, pain – perspective – engage.

Teach your child show up to pain with three steps:

  • recognize pain or suffering (or any aversive feeling) in self or others,

  • use perspective-taking to try to understand the pain, and

  • engage in an action.

Sample conversation scripts.

This will look different based on the developmental level of the child. For example, when talking about refugees:

Preschool and kindergarten children:

o   Pain: Sometimes families come here from other countries to try and build a safer, happier life, but coming to a new place is hard too.

o   Perspective: How would you feel if you were in a neighborhood where you couldn’t read most of the signs? Or didn’t understand what people were saying?

o   Act: I wonder if there are ways we can help make people new here feel more welcome? We could buy them some food or make welcome cards to tell them we’re happy they’re here.

Elementary and middle school-aged children:

o   Pain: Families immigrate to this country for many different reasons. What are some of the reasons a family may come here that you can think of? (Expand on their own ideas.) Do you know anyone who is new here?

o   Perspective: What do you think might be hard for them? Can you remember a time when you felt similar? (Reference times they were new or in an unfamiliar place.) How did you feel then? What would have helped? (Useful to note there are lots of ways we can help without money, small actions like smiling at someone when they look lost can make big impacts).

o   Act: What are some ways we could help now? What could we do in the future?

High school young adults: This script is much looser because especially at this age, you want to be doing very little talking and a lot of listening. You’ll see there’s a lot more questions and following the teen’s lead here.

o   Pain: What have you seen in the news about immigration and refugees? Is there anything you’re wondering about? One thing I’ve been struck by is how hard it must for these families to come here with so little. Is there anything you’ve been thinking about?

o   Perspective: (mirroring their answers, highlight the difficulty refugees may be experiencing and how they would feel in similar circumstances)

o   Act: I’ve been thinking about ways we could help some of these families, what do you think? Would you be interested?

Click here to download the parenting discussion guide.

Further reading

8 Ways to Teach Compassion to Kids at the Huffington Post

Raising A Compassionate Child at Parenting Magazine

5 Ways to Install Compassion in Your Children at Psychology Today


Disclaimer: My blog posts are a mix of personal and professional reflections but are not professional advice. While I am thrilled and grateful you are reading the blog, it does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. I do not assume liability for any content on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your interaction with my website and the content therein. If you are seeking professional advice, I recommend seeking services via the websites on my resources page or contacting me directly.