How do I know? I lead compassion education programs in schools and this is how I begin every presentation: “Please raise your hands if you know what bullying is.” I’m not surprised when 100 percent of children raise their hands. When I follow that by asking if they know empathy and compassion, only 10 to 20 percent of children raise their hands.
Some might argue that it’s not the responsibility of schools to teach compassion and empathy. I would argue that it’s everyone’s responsibility to cultivate compassion within children. It takes a village, as they say.
Here are six ways to raise compassionate children:
Walk the TalkMy eight-year-old daughter, Hannah, sometimes stops me in my tracks when I hear her use EXACT phrases that I say in my same tone of voice.Children are insanely keen observers; their sponge-like brains sop up every little bit of information they see and hear.
Be mindful of your actions and interactions, especially when children are nearby. If you’re respectful and friendly to everyone, your children will follow suit. Try incorporating acts of kindness into daily life and see what happens. Smile at strangers, offer courtesy toward fellow drivers, and seek out ways to help others throughout your day.
Treat Children the Way you Wish to Be TreatedAt Stanford University's Compassion Cultivation Training course, a teacher pointed out that we sometimes treat our children as “it." Feed “it,” get “it” dressed, get “it” out the door, get “it” ready for bed. I realized that I sometimes treated my daughter Hannah that way. I didn’t give her the same respect that I would want in return. I started to pay attention to my parenting style, and I noticed that my daughter often became “it," especially when I was in a hurry.
Treating people as “it” is not the kind of behavior I want to model. Instead, I must treat my daughter as a person. When I speak with my daughter, I use the same tone I’d want her to use with me. This mindful and compassionate approach has enhanced our relationship because we are more respectful toward each other.
Make Compassionate Stories a Dinnertime RitualWhen we incorporate compassion into our conversations every evening, it becomes front-of-mind for us and our children. In lieu of the typical, “How was your day?” prompt at dinner, try “How were you compassionate today?”
Hannah and I enjoy sharing and celebrating our compassionate actions each night. When we look back on our day and pick out highlights, we're training our minds to focus on the positive parts of our days.
Volunteer TogetherWorking, parenting, and participating in after-school activities leaves us little time to focus on others. If you can find a few hours on a weekend, seek out volunteering opportunities in your community. Many nonprofits have limited budgets and rely on volunteers to help them succeed. You can help feed the homeless, join a neighborhood clean-up event, or offer volunteer at an animal shelter, to name a few.
Hannah has joined me several times to help feed the homeless; she has also participated in beach and neighborhood clean-up efforts. We have a blast volunteering together, and Hannah is learning to appreciate what she has. Hannah is also learning that it’s important to give back; I have no doubt that she’ll make volunteering a part of her adult life.
A great resource for finding opportunities to volunteer is www.volunteermatch.org. Visit www.meetup.com to find groups that focus on volunteerism.
Consider kicking the family vacation up a notch by volunteering abroad as a family. International Volunteer HQ can place your family in a program that best suits your needs.
Practice Self-CompassionSelf-compassion is a skill we should nurture within our children, and leading by example is a great place to start.
Have you ever paid attention to how you speak to yourself? We're often our harshest critics. Before I learned about self-compassion, I was downright mean to myself. If I ever spoke to my friends the way I did to myself, I wouldn’t have any left.
According to researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D., self-compassion involves:
- Being aware of your own suffering.
- Remembering that others feel the same way you feel and knowing that you’re not alone.
- Offering words of kindness and encouragement to yourself. In other words, you should treat yourself the way you treat your friends.
Give Them a Reminder to Carry or WearTry giving your kids something that cues compassionate behavior. A beautiful stone or token to keep in their backpacks, or a sticker for their iPad could be all it takes to keep compassionate intentions front-of-mind.
Or, you give them something to wear that reminds them to stay compassionate. This is the whole idea behind my nonprofit COMPASSION IT, which cultivates compassion within children and adults through a black-and-white reversible wristband that reminds everyone to "compassion it" every day. Start with one color out in the morning and flip it to the other side when you "compassion it."
Author Wayne Dyer once said that compassion is the most important lesson to teach our children. He posited that if we could teach kids to put themselves in another’s shoes, we could solve every social problem on the planet. That one statement lit a fire within me; I hope it affects you the same way. Instead of focusing on anti-bullying, try a pro-compassion approach. The future of our world depends on it.