Five Ways to Nurture Compassion in Kids

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Excerpted from Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations to Have with Young Children © 2019 by Shauna Tominey. The following is from Chapter 5: “You Can Be a Helper.” Used with the permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company.

By Shauna Tominey

There are many stories about people who have made a difference that come from individuals or groups that have experienced hardship as they strive to overcome those hardships. For your child, this might be what inspires them to action, but it doesn’t have to be. Everyone has the potential to make a difference in their own way. Some children and adults feel comfortable raising their voices in a loud way, while others prefer a quieter approach. Making a difference might mean speaking up or taking action when you see an injustice, doing something to take care of the environment, letting someone know that you care about them, or playing an active role in your community in other ways. By exposing your child to many different role models in real life and in stories, you can show your child examples of the many ways people can make a difference. Learning about others through stories can help children learn about what is possible and give them opportunities to practice thinking about other people’s feelings and learn words and actions they can use as they reach beyond themselves.

Teaching your child compassion is also an opportunity for you to grow as well, as you strive to be the role model you would like your child to have. As you continue to have conversations with your child aimed at building compassion, consider the following strategies:

1. Use words that you would like to hear your child use now and in the future. As you choose the words you say to your child and to others, imagine how you would feel hearing those same words from your child. Taking a moment to consider how the words you use would sound in your child’s can help you be intentional with your own word choices and help you choose to think and speak with compassion.

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2. Live each conversation beyond your words. Do more than have conversations about being compassionate with your child, look for ways to act compassionately at home and in your community. Explain to your child what you are doing and why so that your child hears what you are thinking and brings a compassionate perspective to their own thought process.

3. Look for role models and examples of compassion in your own community. Seek out examples of individuals and groups in your community that are working to make your community a better place. Point these activities out to your child and talk to them about the needs and challenges faced by your community as well as what others are doing to be helpers.

4. Recognize that building compassion takes time. Just like any set of skills, building compassion takes time and lots of practice. You may feel discouraged at times when you see your own child acting out or struggling to think about someone else’s feelings, but this is normal. Developing compassion is a lifelong process that is easier for some people than others, and one that is challenging for everyone.

5. Learn from your child along the way. As you and your child find your voices together, take time to listen to and learn from one another. You may be surprised by the insights your child offers. Your child might think about other people’s feelings in ways that you may not consider. When you learn something new from your child, let them know that. With all the ways they learn from you, they will love hearing that you learn from them, too!

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Shauna Tominey, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Practice and Parenting Education Specialist at Oregon State University. She currently serves as the Principal Investigator for the Oregon Parenting Education Collaborative, an initiative to provide high-quality parenting education. Previously, Dr. Tominey served as the Director of Early Childhood Programming and Teacher Education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

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