Most children operate in a Me-First world. Yet, as we seek to
raise fully functioning citizens of the world, we must help them
mature beyond their Me-First mentality. Some seem to have the
emotional IQ of a kumquat, while others seem to intuitively know
that harsh words will hurt someone’s feelings.
Ideally, instilling compassion starts at home, teaching each of
our seven sons how words or actions make other family members feel.
A terrific book on this topic is
Raising Compassionate, Courageous Children in a Violent World
written by Dr. Janice Cohn. She is the Chief of Consultation and
Education at the Department of Psychiatry at the Newark Beth Israel
Dr. Cohn’s research gives parents a step-by-step approach to
raising kids to become emotionally intelligent, compassionate
1) Love and Cherish Your Child. Maya Angelou
said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you
did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” In order
to have compassionate children, you need to extend each child an
abundance of grace. This should be a shower of kindness and
thoughtful deeds with an extra helping of compassion when school is
rough or playmates are unkind.
Dr. Cohn says, “They need to feel secure in the
fact that they are cared for and loved despite their mistakes and
misbehaviors. This makes it possible for children to develop an
inner security that their own emotional needs will be taken care of.
It’s only then that they can learn to be responsive to the emotional
needs of others.”
2) Give Clear Guidelines for Acceptable and Unacceptable
Behavior. Once children learn that it’s unacceptable to
speak sharply, loudly or unkindly to either siblings or parents,
they learn how to treat others. But this also applies to parents. I
cannot speak harshly to my children and expect them not to do the
Dr. Cohn says, ”parents who are loving but permissive and do not
set limits on their children’s behavior toward others have children
who tend to be more selfish and less inclined to help others than
are youngsters whose parents provide discipline.”
3) Help Them Understand the Consequences of Actions.
Don’t assume that our children understand how deeply words can cut
and actions can impact others. Drew Barrymore still talks about the
bullying and name calling from elementary school classmates who
called her a “pig nose.” Words wound.
4) Discipline through Reasoning. Strict,
authoritarian adults tend to punish without explanation and demand
obedience. They may have children who outwardly conform to the
“rules” but inwardly rebel. We care more about our children’s hearts
and emotional intelligence than an outward obedience, therefore,
discipline is a talked through process.
Dr. Cohn says, “When students are given explanations for
household rules and are allowed to voice their opinions and even
disagree (though the parents have the last word), research suggests
that they become more adept at exercising social skills, relating to
others, and coping with life’s problems.”
5) Show by Example. This year, because our
children are older, they were able to be involved in service to
their community. Our twins and dad spent one day assisting in a
construction project to rebuild a man’s business that was destroyed
by the April tornados in Alabama. They also went to feed the
homeless and spent two weeks in Slovakia working at an English camp.
Our church often assists the local homeless shelter by providing
diapers, canned goods, a Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas presents
for needy children. As parents we need to keep our eyes open for
ways to demonstrate compassion and helping those in our communities
who are suffering. Needs are all around us. It just takes a
thoughtful approach to involving our children in other’s lives.
6) Give Children Frequent Opportunities to Perform Small
Acts of Kindness. It’s not just the big things that make an
impact on others; it’s often the kind word, the compassionate hug or
the listening ear. When our children attend a family event, we often
prep them ahead of time to ask Aunt Betty Sue what she’s reading or
what she especially enjoys doing in her garden. Most children are
clueless about how to talk to people in a nursing home. When we
visit uncle W.A., the twins are very comfortable sitting down and
talking with him, because we’ve given them three questions to get
the conversation started. These skills aren’t inborn and have to be
taught, yet most parents miss this simple thing.
Dr. Cohn says, “The research shows that people who initially
become involved in helping behavior, intending to help in a very
limited way, often unexpectedly become committed to what they are
doing and end up helping in very extensive ways.”
7) Emphasize the Power to Positively Impact Others.
Some parents major in trying to catch their children doing something
wrong, so that they can scold them. Although that’s an essential
part of parenting, how often do you try to catch your children doing
something right, so that you can praise them? By doing this, we
reinforce one of the most rewarding things in life — the power to
change someone’s life. Our children have grown up with a grandmother
and 105-year-old great-grandmother who lives next door. Every day of
their lives they’ve seen either Mom or Dad caring for Granny or
helping Grandma Miller out with a home improvement project in her
home. They’re often involved as well. Every day they see the
opportunity to make a life better by the practical things we do for
Last week when I was taking Andrew to work, I asked him to hop
out and grab Grandma Miller’s garbage can to bring it to the curb.
It’s something he did willingly, because he’s had a lifetime of
In fact, I’m so proud of Andrew’s compassion for a friend. On
Thanksgiving Eve he took his hard-earned money out of his checking
account to bail a friend out of jail. He gave him the gift of a
holiday dinner and freedom. Of course, it cost Andrew a week’s wages
and a sleepless night, because the friend was released at 2:00 a.m.
He knew that there was a cost to compassion — cost of time, money
and sleep — but he willingly paid the price.