Teaching Children Compassion
I recently received a comment pertaining to my post titled "Making Old Toys New Again". Here is the comment/question "...[H]ow did you introduce this concept? I don't think mine would understand if I told them other kids don't have toys to play with. We have worked on sharing and she's OK with that - although I don't know if she just does it to avoid conflict or if she really wants the other one to have a toy to play with".
Great question! I decided to just respond in a new post as there may be others wondering the same thing. After giving it some thought, I decided to address sharing, compassion and random acts of kindness as they tie together well. Hopefully, I can give you some helpful hints along the way.
I will start by admitting that I don't have a magic answer and my kids have not completely mastered this skill. The majority of the time, they do a great job but they are normal 4 year olds who can be selfish sometimes. My twins have always been very close to each other. They had to learn to share at an early age. We had plenty of screaming, grabbing, biting and hitting to work through with two small children in each others space. Children are naturally egocentric and selfish. Children may very well be sharing to avoid conflict or because that is what they have been told to do. It takes time for children to genuinely want to share.
I've found that the best way to teach compassion to children is to model it. You will probably discover that you are already teaching a lot of compassion to your child without even realizing it. I started with my children early on by showing them a lot of compassion and empathy. I involve them in acts of compassion and random acts of kindness. We try to do nice things within our family as well as outside of our family. When we see others doing nice things for people, I try to point it out to my children "Look, that person opened a door for us". "That little girl shared her snack with the boy who had none".... I encourage them to share with others because it's the right thing to do. We talk a lot about feelings and how we feel when others do kind things for us. We also talk about how we might feel if we needed something and no one would share. I try to get them thinking to help them come to realizations on their own. With younger children, you will need to give them the words and help them learn the feelings. I try to involve my children in simple acts of charity. I'll list a few examples of the things we have done and continue to do to help instill compassion and sharing.
A store we frequent requires a quarter in order to get a shopping cart. When you finish with your cart, you get the quarter back. Sometimes we leave our quarter in the cart for the next person. I tell my kids that we are going to leave a quarter so that someone who doesn't have a quarter will be able to get a cart. It's just a simple way to make someone smile. Another store we frequent has electronic pony rides for a penny. We often bring extra pennies and leave them for the next child. These are just very simple ways to show caring. At first my kids wanted to use the extra penny for a second pony ride which is completely normal but eventually, they caught the excitement of being generous. It's a building process.
Every Thanksgiving season the Salvation Army sends out cards asking for donations to feed the homeless a Thanksgiving meal. We enjoy participating in the effort each year and this year we decided to get the kids on board. We told them that we already had all of the food we needed for Thanksgiving and we still had some money left to share with others. We told them that we could buy some Thanksgiving dinners for people who didn't have money to buy food. We then asked them how many dinners the would like to buy and let them pick the amount.
As I already mentioned in my earlier post (Making Old Toys New Again), we do toy donations. We explain that some children don't have toys and it would make them happy if we shared ours. I make it clear that we will not give all of our toys away. My husband and I also set the example by donating our own stuff too. Younger children may not question why children would have no toys. Older preschoolers may be curious. My children became very curious and filled with questions around 3 years old.
When we are playing with other children, we talk about sharing our toys because it makes others happy. We are happy when other children share their toys. We might feel sad if we played with a child who would not share anything because it wouldn't be a very fun time.
We also read a lot of Bible stories and use Jesus as our example. Jesus wants us to be kind and loving and he wants us to share with others and not be selfish. We ask Jesus to help us.
I also let my children know that it's okay if they don't want to share everything. Some things are very special to us and it's okay if we don't want to give them away or share them but we must be kind about it.
We make cards for family members who are sick. Bring meals to friends or family members who could use a helping hand. We talk about why we are doing these things. Just simple lifestyle lessons. Your children are watching you all of the time. Talk about what you are doing and why you are doing it when they are young as it lays a good foundation for them.
WEEKLY CHALLENGE: Model compassion for your children this week and talk to them about it. Involve them in a simple act of sharing or a random act of kindness or compassion. You can choose one of the ideas I've already mentioned or come up with one of your own. I would love to hear what others do/have done to teach sharing and compassion to your children. You can leave me a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
A Fun Tip: Sometimes when I catch my kids doing something kind for someone, I pull them aside and compliment them and sometimes I even give them a stamp on their hand. I have a bunch of rubber stamps and washable stamp pads and my kids love getting stamped. They don't always get a stamp when they do "random acts of kindness". Stamping is very random and an easy way to help reinforce the concept. I never want them to expect rewards for doing nice things. I want them to internalize but as we all now, sometimes young children need a little external motivation before they are able to internalize. This is a fun and easy motivator.
In addition to doing this at home with my own children, I also used this method successfully when I was teaching preschool outside the home. One year I had a classroom of children who did not show a lot of compassion for each other when the school year began. Many didn't want to share and did not use very kind words or actions. I began talking to them, modeling for them and really pumping up the idea of being kind. It didn't take long for lots of kids to get on board and when others saw and heard the praise and occasional stamp, they wanted in on it too. I found myself giving out lots of stamps in the beginning but eventually, the stamps faded but the kindness continued which was my goal.