Teaching Kids to Care: How to Inspire Compassion and Empathy
“I know one kid’s weakness at school,” Miles told me. This kind of language—reminiscent of an 80-year-old sage rather than an 8-year-old boy—was becoming familiar because he’s reading books like "How to Train Your Dragon."
“Oh yeah?” I asked. “What is it?”
“Lucas hates to lose,” he said. “He’s really bad at it, and he cries whenever he loses. It’s his weakness.”
I thought about this for a moment, perhaps because to know someone’s weakness comes with a little bit of power. And most of the time, we see that sort of power exploited by everyone from villains in storybooks to brokers on Wall Street.
“Is it good to know that?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
Silence. I cringed at the thought that he might have already said something to this kid.
“Well, he almost always wins,” Miles said. I knew that about Lucas. He was famous around school, or at least around our house, for being the best at sports and the fastest kid in all of the 2nd grade.
“But we can help him when he loses,” Miles continued. “I think he needs to lose sometimes so he can get better at it.”
I stared at this miracle child, amazed at his compassionate response. If I ever thought I was the one doing the majority of the teaching about these things in our home, this conversation corrected me. It also made me even more convinced that intentionally modeling compassion is one of the most important things I can do as a parent.
As adults who care about the children in our lives, we’re all looking for ways to help shape them into compassionate people, into empathetic souls who will continue to care about others into adulthood. Here are a few ways we can guide the children in our lives toward a posture of empathy and compassion.
If you’ve ever been around a group of children, chances are you’ve seen tempers flare over possession of even the dumbest toy. My kids almost came to blows once over the plastic thing that comes in the center of delivery pizza.
The clinical way to describe this is that young children are ego-centric. Developmentally, they learn to care first for themselves, then for others. So why not engage them in developmentally appropriate ways? Teaching self-compassion is a piece that those of us who have been trained up in the ways of service, self-sacrifice, and humility often miss and often need ourselves. But it shouldn’t be something we bristle at.
Jesus said to love your neighbor as you love yourself. So the first step to learning love and compassion for others is, naturally, to learn it for ourselves.
- Emphasize the value we hold in God’s eyes.We are, after all, God’s beloved children. This is the first thing I want my children to learn about God: that He loves them, just the way they are. Once we learn that about ourselves, it is so much easier to extend the same grace and compassion to other people. These books make for great bedtime reading: "When God Made You" and "I Can Make a Difference." I also wrote a book called "Not Especially Special" about God’s love for each of us.
For most of us, our very first community is our family. So lessons in compassion begin with the other humans living in your space. Speaking as someone who loads the majority of the dirty dishes from the sink (or from the coffee table or from under the bed) into the dishwasher, this is not always easy.
- Emphasize ways in which we can help each other.In her book "Faithful Families: Creating Sacred Moments at Home," Traci Smith tells about a practice in her family called “Secret Helpers Week.” During a designated week, family members make an effort to help each other when they see someone with a need, without being asked and without reciprocity. According to Smith, this practice “helps children not only recognize ways in which they can show compassion to other members of the family, but also allows them to experience acts of kindness and reflect on how good it feels when someone helps them.” (If your kids are like mine, renaming it “Ninja Helpers Week” may up the fun factor.) This sentiment can also be taught in more spontaneous ways. If the house needs to be picked up (I know, this is rare for us, too), why not encourage everyone in the family to clean up someone else’s mess?
My children spent the youngest years of their life at a church that brought in people from the homeless community. We offered showers and sometimes a meal, and we gathered together for the worship service. It was especially beautiful because the homeless community’s presence there didn’t feel distinct from “us” as a church; they were part of us. We learned their stories and laughed and mourned and worshipped with people who were different from me and my kids. The most natural way to teach compassion is to be with those who are in need. The word means “to suffer with,” so, as followers of Christ, we know it is important to be among those who are poor, sick, vulnerable, abused, and marginalized.
- Emphasize “closing the loop” between service and those who are being served.My friend Sara shares these words: “We work in a community garden that grows food that is donated to various local places. We then volunteer in those locations where the food is being served or given away. I feel it is important for my kids to see the ‘who’ and the ‘why’ of what we do.”
Compassion is so very much about awareness. Exposing kids to different realities helps inspire kids (and adults) toward empathy.
- Emphasize travel.Tiffany and Dawson had a dream of traveling the country in an RV, so, after some extensive planning and finagling, they and three young children did just that. Staying in RV parks, exploring unfamiliar towns, and having adventures in all sorts of different contexts opened the whole family’s eyes to just how many ways there are to live in the world. She noticed how conversations about our differences and similarities as humans came up naturally over the course of their months-long trip. You don’t have to buy an RV to experience new people and context. Any sort of travel reinforces the idea that the world is big—and filled with people who are all uniquely made in God’s image. Get out and see it, even if you don’t go far.
- Sponsor a child—and more.I love the idea of child sponsorship-—and there are many trustworthy resources for ministering in this way. My friend Carie Beth Russell and her family sponsor a child in Uganda. And while child sponsorship itself is great, Carie Beth extends the experience so her whole family can not only help support a child half a world away, but also have a relationship with her. She shares, “We have a prayer board that hangs next to our breakfast table, and we pray for her at dinner. We also light a candle for her and sometimes ‘eat with her’ by choosing rice, beans, and water for dinner. We write to her and honor her birthday. We buy things we know are made in Uganda as a way of connection.” Carie Beth also suggests finding commonalities between your children and the child you choose to sponsor, in order to foster an immediate sense of connection. Maybe they are the same age? Or share a birthday? Maybe their names mean the same thing?
And finally, in all things, sisters and brothers, pray. This formative act of compassion leads our children not only to consider how loving our God is, but how we are all in this together—all of us made in the image of our Creator—and how bearing each other’s burdens is beautiful, right, and good. May it be so.
Katie Savage is a writer and mom and wife. She is the author of a new children’s picture book called "Not Especially Special" about the no-bird-too-ordinary love of God. She is also the author of "Grace in the Maybe: Instructions on Not Knowing Everything about God." It’s a book for grownups, a spiritual memoir about loving Jesus and growing up in church but not knowing all the answers. She lives in Santa Monica, California, and her husband is pastor of the little Nazarene church they attend there. You can learn more about Katie at katie-savage.com. If you’re looking to order a copy of "Not Especially Special," you can go here.