When I started writing on this platform about a year ago, it was my hope to integrate what I’ve learned at the hospital bedside as a nursing instructor with the lessons I’m learning as I raise my daughters. As an instructor, I have the opportunity to work with students from all walks of life, but who all have one thing in common: they want to help other people. As their teacher, I’m responsible for harnessing that compassion, teaching the students how to provide care across the lifespan and for a multitude of disease processes, and fostering resilience throughout their clinical rotations.
I often wonder how my students reached this point in their lives, where they realize they wanted to devote their career to caring for the suffering. Upon reflection of my own journey, I remember the moments I realized how beneficial it was, both for myself and the world around me, to be a compassionate contributor to my community and the greater world around us.
But, how to instill those values and that fervent desire to my children? There, I was stumped.
What Does the Research Say?
There isn’t a great deal of research out there specific to instilling compassion in children. However, there is ample research about how a child’s brain develops, and in turn, we can talk about how that relates to their concern for the suffering of others. To get our children to this point, they need to overcome the egocentricity and impulsivity that is the hallmark of childhood, and in turn, balance this with their natural curiosity of the world around them.
Research also encourages parents to make acts of compassion part of their daily lives, not just an item to check off once or twice a year. While there is certainly a place for grand gestures, it is more likely to stick with children if practicing compassion is woven into the fabric of a family. Once a strong foundation is established at home, it is possible to extend compassion, not only under your own roof, but across the street and around the world.
How Do We Get There?
Here are some simple steps to use in your daily interactions with your children that will help foster compassion.
- Point out value in everyone’s contribution
- Model gentle kindness towards your children
- Firmly stand against rudeness, from your children and the rest of the world
- Structure your day so your child is expected to help, even when it’s hard
- Ensure your children feel that their basic needs are met before expecting them to reach out to others
Sacrifice can be a strong word to use, but it’s important for children to understand that their desires will likely not come first when they are serving others. Throughout our days at home, I’ve found it’s really helpful to point out why it’s necessary for my children to contribute, even though it is an inconvenience for them at many points. This forces them to think outside of themselves, and I’m hoping it will stick with them for the long term.
The Shift Outside Themselves
By early to mid elementary school, children shift to considering others consistently.
How do we introduce concepts of suffering without overwhelming or scaring our children? Parents know their children best and should approach topics differently with each child, if needed. The dose of reality can be really scary for some children. Some discomfort is necessary, but paralyzing anxiety should not be part of the equation.
Even in preschool, children notice subtle and larger examples of living a compassionate life. One of the first introductions we give is based off of a Mr. Rogers quote from his mother:
“When I was a boy, and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”
At some point during the evening, I try to ask each of my girls how they were a helper today. Who did they serve? Why did this person need help? And if they can’t come up with an example, or are repeating the same examples from the day before, I ask who else they saw being a helper? Who could they emulate?
Brainstorming Ideas to Give Opportunities to Serve
There are some questions you can discuss as a family, or with your partner if your children are young, to get started.
What defines your family? What do you want to be known for? What is your mission?
What are your family’s strengths? How can you play off those to give back to the world around you?
What do you wish would improve? What resources do you have to get there?
What steps can you take to become a compassionate contributor?
I created a worksheet that you can use to brainstorm with your family. There are many opportunities to practice compassion and give back to your community, both across the street and around the world. I think, half the battle is just getting started, and I hope this worksheet will give that starting point. If you opt-in to my email list, I’ll send it your way!