In a time when heartbreaking news headlines and polarizing posts clog our social feeds, it’s never been more important to raise a child who is aware and kind to others. Here’s how to start.
If there’s anything the past year-and-a-half has taught us, from racial injustices to domestic terrorism to harassment and abuse, it’s that compassion and empathy towards others can be fairly rare resources.
And if you’re raising a child, chances are they’ve caught wind of many of those conflicts on social media. But according to experts, if there’s one silver lining to seeing unsettling viral videos and hateful social posts, it’s that they can often be valuable teaching moments for families when it comes to compassion.
“Compassion is a critical social skill and is integral to kids’ ability to have connected and lasting interpersonal relationships,” points out Nina Kaiser, Ph.D., a child and family psychologist, founder of PRACTICE San Francisco, and a mom of two.
Kaiser says that parents can model empathy and compassion in a few ways. This can be through service, such as taking a meal to a neighbor who is ill. Another teaching moment: If you hear your child talking about a peer in a negative way, you can encourage them to think about the situation from the other person’s perspective.
Either way, demonstrating to your child how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes is a crucial building block for other caring emotions. “It’s how we develop gratitude, hope, and compassion, which is the ability to act on your empathy,” explains Christine Carter, Ph.D., a sociologist and happiness expert at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.
It’s important to add, too, that kids can start modeling these positive behaviors early on. Research has shown that by 12 months, infants begin to comfort victims of distress, and by 14 to 18 months, children display spontaneous helping behaviors.
While these responses happen organically, there’s plenty that parents can do to support the developmental process. Here, experts share 10 tips for raising a caring, compassionate child.
Your first priority in teaching compassion and kindness to your kids? You have to embody those characteristics yourself. That’s why San Francisco mom Kat Eden tries to be understanding when others make mistakes. For example, if a server who brings another person’s order to her table, Eden asks her sons (ages 5 and 7) questions like, “I wonder how the waitress was feeling when she gave me the wrong meal?” and “How do you think it would feel to be that busy at your job?”
Even adults struggle with understanding that tone and intention don’t always come through on a screen, write Evie Granville and Sarah Davis, creators of the website and podcast Modern Manners for Moms and Dads.
“It’s so important to help children understand from an early age that when we’re chatting online, our friend can’t see our face or hear our voice,” advise Granville and Davis. “It’s easy for someone to end up with hurt feelings when a conversation best had in person instead takes place in a text.”
Kaiser encourages parents to talk to kids about responding online in a way that they would feel comfortable with even if the recipient were face-to-face with us instead of on the other side of a computer screen. “As parents, we need to have specific conversations with our kids about social media and how easy it is for all of us to say or do things that we might regret later,” she notes.
Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City encourages parents to talk to children about the permanence of posting on any social media platform. “Even if a post can be deleted, there will always be a digital record of their interactions,” she points out. And while Romanoff notes that these negative feelings are normal and okay to have, understanding how to manage them in a healthy, non-destructive way is key. Here are her tips for parents and kids:
“When individuals have more gratitude, they are more likely to be generous and helpful in the future,” notes Romanoff. She recommends that parents set up regular opportunities for modeling and practicing gratitude: “For example, at dinner, make it a ritual to go around the table and have each person share what they are grateful for from their day,” she advises. “It’s a great way to launch dinner conversation, share about each person’s day, and model and reinforce gratitude.”
Eden also helps her kids show gratitude by asking them questions like, “What would it be like if you spent a lot of time choosing a great gift for a friend and she didn’t thank you?” and “How do you think Timmy will feel when he gets his very own letter in the mail?”
And it’s not necessary to require a young child to pen the note themselves. If merely thinking about what to say seems difficult, write the note for them and and let your child sign it, as you’ll be modeling the positive behavior for them to pick up on their own later on.
If you tell your child to be mindful that their words have an impact on others’ feelings, but then you berate your partner or another family member for a minor misstep, you’re sending your child confusing messages, says Robin Stern, Ph.D., associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of the Gaslight Effect. Your best bet: Make it right in front of your child by apologizing to whomever you argued with.
Learning how to identify and label emotions can help with processing them, but it can also make your child more aware of other people’s emotions—and ultimately show them empathy. To do this, ask your preschooler to help make “feelings flash cards” by cutting out pictures of faces from magazines or newspapers, gluing them to index cards, and tagging whatever emotion they convey on the back. As your child gets older, the emotions can get more nuanced—surprise, shyness, confusion, irritation—and you can add body language to the facial gestures. And when you read books together, encourage your child to name the emotions of the different characters.
Another expert tip: Talk to your children’s teachers about what, if anything, the class is discussing surrounding emotional literacy. Exploring a topic on an emotional level lets children get more involved in a subject—and remember what they are taught, says Marc Brackett, Ph.D., founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. So when kids learn about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, they also spend time talking about how his wife, Coretta Scott King, felt on that awful day and how they would have felt if they were Dr. King’s widow. If your child’s school doesn’t offer a social and emotional learning program, approach your PTA about asking the school board for one.
When you watch your child offering a playmate some apple slices, call attention to it by saying, “That was very kind of you to give them a few when you didn’t have very many.” Then add something like, “I’ll bet they were a little envious that you brought a snack to the park when they hadn’t. How do you think it made your friend feel when you shared with them?”
Just watch out for lavishing praise on your child for fairly ordinary tasks, as this won’t bolster empathy. “Overpraising is a distraction,” says Polly Young-Eisendrath, Ph.D., author of The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance. “When kids expect praise for very small accomplishments, it actually gets in the way of their thinking about other people’s needs.” So, in the example above, focus on the other child’s situation (and therefore happiness) versus your own.
Speaking of focusing on others, Romanoff says that many parents often prioritize their child’s happiness above anything else. “This can become at odds with teaching children compassion and kindness to others when it conflicts with their own short-term happiness,” she notes. “For example, if your child wants to quit the sports team, encourage them to consider their obligation to others and the commitment they made.” And instead of the quick fix (bailing on the extracurricular), you can try to get to the root of why they want to quit, suggests Romanoff.
You may worry that introducing kids to life’s harsher realities will be too upsetting. But the reverse is actually true, says Dr. Carter. “When you expose children to the sufferings of others, they end up feeling grateful for what they have and proud of being able to help someone,” she says.
Every Christmas Eve, since her three children were born, Tallahassee, Florida-based mom Heidi King and her husband have taken the kids to volunteer at a homeless shelter near their house. “We teach them that they have been blessed and that it is their responsibility to help others,” says King. “And I want them to see this as a responsibility—not an option. My 8-year-old, upon learning that a lunchroom lady’s house had burned, took her piggy bank to school without telling me and donated the entire contents—more than $100. She thought they could use it to buy food.”
Look for opportunities to have conversations about tolerance and respect. When New Fairfield, Connecticut-based mom Alexis Scocozza’s children were toddlers and preschoolers, she would take them with her to the school where she taught kids with serious medical issues.
“They would see children with feeding tubes, who are blind, or who can’t walk,” says Scocozza. “If you don’t give kids the tools to be comfortable around children with special needs, all of a sudden they’re pre-teens or teens and don’t know how to handle it when they encounter someone who’s different.”
Her approach has certainly worked. Last year, when her daughter, Maya, was in fifth grade, she mentioned that she’d won an extra pass to play Wii at recess. Turns out that she’d volunteered to partner with two other classmates who hadn’t been chosen for a group during gym. “I told her how thoughtful that was, but to her it was just normal and the right thing to do,” recalls Scocozza.