Many of us know families that are dealing with some sort of difficult situation, whether it be a child’s illness, a divorce or a financial hardship. How do you teach your children to be compassionate in the face of suffering? After all, every situation is a teaching opportunity that can impact your child well into adulthood.
Erica Curtis is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board certified art therapist with over 10 years experience working with children and parents in schools and private practice. Her insight provides parents with some valuable tips to help them raise compassionate kids.
No time like the present
On one hand, the world in which we live is full of chaos. On the other, it’s full of good people willing to help when needed. As popular culture and news programs shower our kids with painful realities, we as parents are left to answer the “now what?” questions. “Teaching compassion means teaching kids to read and understand others emotions and thoughts,” says Curtis. It teaches children to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. These are important social skills that can be applied in all aspects of life, including having positive family relationships, developing friendships and even being successful in school and business.”
It’s easy for a busy mom to feel overwhelmed by all of the bad news and negativity in the air these days, but you don’t have to fix all of the world’s problems in order to model compassion. Think smaller. “To help your child start to understand the importance of the kind of compassion you show them, and start to transfer it into their interactions with others, you need only name it when you see it — or when you do it,” says Curtis. “Point out the specific positive effect that helping and sharing has on others. This will not only positively reinforce the behavior but will start helping the child to attend to others emotional states and to recognize the impact he can have on them.”
Lemons into lemonade
Chances are, you will know someone going through a difficult experience. You may even go through a few yourself. When your family comes face-to-face with difficulties, Curtis suggests taking the following steps:
- Point out the event that impacted the person.
- Label the emotion the person is probably experiencing.
- Help your child identify one or many things that might help the person to start feeling better.
- Take steps with your child to actually do one of the things you’ve identified together. Remember to always keep discussions and activities at a level that is appropriate for your child’s age and developmental level.
The ways of the world
There are plenty of “educational” tools available to teach your children about compassion, but the best teacher is always the parent. “Teaching kids to be compassionate is as much about what you do as what you don’t do,” says Curtis. “Laughing at peoples’ misfortunes on America’s Funniest Home Videos or poor singing ability on American Idol implicitly teaches kids that its okay to laugh at, judge and criticize others.” Most importantly, it’s never too early to starting teaching your kids about compassion. The sooner they learn to walk in another’s shoes, the better equipped they’ll be to handle whatever life throws at them.