Cultivate the Trait: Compassion

Our blog series Cultivate the Trait provides caregiving resources to support and amplify a different trait introduced in each Bravery issue. Issue 16, featuring Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, teaches compassion.

Written by Mariko Fairly


Guest blogger Mariko Fairly is a board-certified behavior analyst, parenting coach, and mom of two. She provides positive and proactive strategies to increase your child’s cooperation, and your calm and confidence as a parent. For more parenting tips, check out her site and follow her on Instagram @parenting_fairly.

The last year and a half has been difficult for so many. A once-in-a-century pandemic, a once-in-a-generation movement for social/racial justice, and climate changes across the globe. There is clearly so much suffering in the world. Parents are fraught with worry and questions about how to best support their families during this time, and many are asking an even bigger question: How do I raise my child to be compassionate to others?

What is compassion exactly? We may think of compassion as being synonymous with kindness and empathy. They are related, yet they have slight and significant differences. Kindness refers to being friendly, considerate, and having concern for others. Empathy involves being able to understand and share the feelings and perspectives of another person—being able to put yourself in their shoes. Compassion involves both the ability to recognize the suffering of others AND the desire to take action to alleviate it.

Compassion might look like noticing someone has dropped their grocery bag and helping them pick up the contents. It might look like seeing a stray dog and checking its tag for contact information. Or it might look like a child noticing a classmate standing alone on the playground and asking if she wants to play. While feeling compassion may be somewhat inherent, there are ways we can teach and support our kids to demonstrate compassion. 

1. Observe the environment.

In order to recognize what others are experiencing, we need to be able to look around us. Parents can begin practicing this with their infants and toddlers—simply describe the scene around you. “The dog is barking at the mail carrier,” “Daddy is washing the dishes,” “The boy’s mommy is pushing him on the swing.”

2. Understand others’ emotions and perspectives.

Developmentally, young children are inherently egocentric, meaning they tend to only think of themselves and assume that others think and feel what they do. As we open our children’s eyes to the world around them, and teach them to observe their environment, we can also teach them to identify others’ feelings and perspectives.

Try sitting face-to-face with your baby. Get silly and exaggerate oral/facial motor actions (e.g., peekaboo, blinking, opening/closing mouth, smiling, sticking out tongue, blowing raspberries). Your baby may try to imitate you! Play the same face-to-face game with your toddler, exaggerating your facial expressions to show various emotions (e.g., happy, sad, angry, surprised, silly, tired). Label your child’s and your own emotions throughout daily interactions. “Thank you for the hug! I’m so happy!” As you are observing the environment and commenting on what you see, add in an emotion or perspective. For example, “The boy fell off his bike. He’s crying. Do you think he is hurt? Look, his mommy is going to help him.” 

Identifying someone else’s emotions isn’t always easy, even for adults. So, in addition to looking at their faces, we might observe their body language. We can point out to our children that their friend took a step back when they got too close, or the dog’s tail wags when his belly is rubbed.

Understanding what someone else can literally see is the first step of perspective-taking. Play a game I like to call “Do you see what I see?” Sit next to your child and take turns listing the things you can see. Then face each other and talk about what you see. Try sitting back-to-back—how does what you/they see change depending on your position? If your child is at least 5 years old and able to label what they see, you might also add on questions like, “What is something you can see that I can’t?” Or “What is something I can see that you can’t?”

3. Expose kids to various people, places, and experiences.

Expose your children to people who are different than they are. Expose them to novel places. Encourage them to try something new. This will allow them to feel comfortable and less afraid of people and situations that are unfamiliar. Offering new experiences might include volunteering and meeting new people.

As our children learn that other people may have different opinions and perspectives, it’s important for us to point out what similarities they have. Perhaps they also like basketball, play the piano, or have a pet. Showing our kids that people who look different and who have had different experiences can still share commonalities, will serve to increase their empathy and compassion.

Talk about difficult topics (in an age-appropriate way). Instead of avoiding talking about race and disabilities and homelessness, acknowledge them. Answer your kids’ questions honestly and with facts, taking into account that too much information may be confusing for young children. Monitor their screen time and don’t let them watch shows that promote hurt or violence.

 4. Don’t force it.

Have age-appropriate expectations for children. Did you know that kids don’t learn to share until they are at least 3 years old? And often not until 4 or 5 or 6. We don’t have to force kids to share, make them apologize, or even thank others. We, parents, often feel a societal pressure to have perfectly polite children, but if we want our children to develop genuine empathy and compassion for others, forcing it upon them won’t make it happen any faster.

5. Model respect, empathy, and compassion.

Instead of telling our kids what to do/think/feel, we can model it. Model offers of help, donate, volunteer. Treat pets, people, and the earth with respect. Model forgiveness and self-compassion when you or others make a mistake.

Identify your child’s emotions, even from toddlerhood. When they are pouting or having a tantrum, label, “You’re mad,” “You seem sad,” or “I can see you’re frustrated.” In time, they will start to use these labels to describe their own emotions. As they get older, talk about why they feel that way and support them to problem-solve solutions.

With younger children, get down and play with them. Observe your child’s play and join in with them. Act out scenarios with their dolls or figurines, or role-play and see how they respond. 

No matter their age, spend time together reading books and watching shows, and talk about the characters’ experiences, emotions, and perspectives. “Why do you think the boy felt sad?” “How would the girl feel if she wasn’t invited to her friend’s birthday party?” “What’s one way you can be a good citizen?”

6. Acknowledge and reinforce when they demonstrate compassion.

The biggest way we can teach our children to be compassionate is to reinforce those behaviors when we see them. Just as you would cheer your child for taking their first steps or saying their first word, acknowledge and praise them for being gentle with the dog or their baby sister, letting their friend use their shovel in the sandbox, and throwing away their trash. Take every situation as a learning opportunity.

With any behavior, it boils down to this: Reinforce the behaviors you want to see more of, and you will.