Six Habits to Cultivate Compassion in Your Kids
By Blair Thompson-White
A parent shared with me recently that her deepest desire for her children is not that they become doctors or lawyers or make a lot of money. This would be fine, of course, but their career earnings are not her greatest aspiration for them. More than anything, she wants her kids to be kind and compassionate.
We anecdotally know what research has proven over and over: the home is the place of greatest influence in the emotional and spiritual development of children. Kids learn to be kind and compassionate at home from the expectations, routines, and example parents set for them.
So what are some ‘habits of the heart’ that parents can practice at home with their kids?
Here’s a list I’ve compiled. Some of these ideas come from families whose children I observe to be kind and compassionate; some from books like The Spiritual Child by Lisa Miller; some from podcasts about parenting by folks like Jen Hatmaker and Brene Brown.
Say Grace Before Every Meal
This means that you prioritize sitting down and eating together. Before everyone digs in, pause and say one of the greatest and simplest prayers: thanks.
Thank you for this food. Thank you for this day. It doesn't have to be complicated but it does require you to stop and recognize the Something More than you from whom all blessings flow.
Plan to Help Others
Put helping others in your calendar. Make serving intentional. Find a local food bank and schedule your family to serve together there every-other-month. Talk about why there are food banks.
Help your kids to think about how each can they sort will eventually go to a family in need. Pray for those who will be receiving the food from the food bank before you eat your evening meal.
Give Money Away
Create a piggy bank and make putting money in it a part of your routine as a family. Decide who will receive the money; perhaps the food bank where you volunteer will be the recipient or maybe you will research together a charity that works for a cause your kids are passionate about.
Instead of ordering a pizza or eating out one night each week, eat at home. Talk about your decision to eat leftovers instead of eat out. Put the money you would have spent on a meal in the piggy bank.
Do Grocery Shopping Together
When you are in the coffee aisle, show your kids the Fair Trade Certification symbol on the coffee you are purchasing. Point out the difference in price between the Fair Trade coffees and the others and talk about why you choose the former, how you have read about coffee bean workers in places like Guatemala and want to support them, how even this seemingly small decision of what kind of coffee to purchase impacts people around the world.
Grocery shopping can also help kids to learn to see beyond themselves.
A family shared with me that they shop at Aldi’s together. Each time they go, they return their cart but they do not put it back in the lock to get their quarter back. They give their cart away along with a positive greeting to the person who receives it.
They bring an extra bag with them and give that away, too. Because there is always someone who needs a bag at Aldi’s. The kids are no longer looking at the candy at the checkout line; they are looking for a person who needs a bag.
At the grocery store or any other store, make it a point to greet the cashier and ask them about their day. Your kids are paying attention to the way you interact with those who serve you. Greet cashiers, waiters, salespeople, warmly; look them in the eye and give them a word of gratitude or a word of encouragement.
Send Thank You Notes
Pick a time once a week to sit at the table together and write one thank you note each. When you are done, share what you wrote with one another. Why are you thankful for this person? Research has shown over and over: gratitude correlates with happiness.
Spend One Day a Month Without Electronics
A friend who is a Rabbi shared with me her family’s practice of Sabbath; they refrain from technology one day a week. They walk instead of drive. They spend time in nature. They cook a meal together and invite neighbors over for long dinner. They rest.
They remember the world will keep spinning without them for a day.
Start unplugging one-day a month and work your way up to once a week. I can tell you from personal experience that this will be very difficult at first.
Ease into it by planning the day together ahead of time. Put your phones, iPads, keys in a basket the night before. Plan to make breakfast together. Plan a morning walk. Plan a picnic and walk to the park. Plan to nap. Plan to have people over for dinner.
None of these ideas are revolutionary. The key is to be intentional.
Just as you commit to take your kid to soccer practice so that he or she will become better at the sport, commit to practices that cultivate kindness and compassion.
Will your kids whine about going to the grocery store with you? Probably. Will they throw a fit about writing a thank you note? More than likely.
Hang in there. Your example, your explanation of why, your consistency and insistence, is so important as is the support you receive from your community. Surround yourself and your kids with adults who encourage and model kind and compassionate behavior; find a faith community that does this, too.