Teaching Compassion

Every day we and our children walk by the homeless on the street. When our children are very young we feel especially protective because their instinct is towards empathy: they ask us why that person doesn't have a home, where does that person sleep, and can't we give them some money? And we teach our children from an early age, when these questions first arise, to be careful and make a wide berth in case the person is dangerous. By the time our children reach elementary school, this has probably become an automatic habit, and if the children were asked, they might not even remember walking by a "street person." Psychologists call this phenomenon "desensitization", literally, our children are no longer "sensitive" to those whom they see on the street who are less fortunate than themselves.

Desensitization serves a purpose. It allows us and our children to function in this city. For if our children remained fully "sensitized" they would constantly be in tears over the plight of the homeless, the elderly, the ill. Walking around fully sensitized would be akin to wearing your heart on your sleeve, the pain would be unbearable. In addition, protecting our children from potential danger is a very real responsibility, and we absolutely MUST protect our children. The problem, however, is that while desensitization serves an important purpose, it also reduces our children's natural tendency towards compassion. So for parents in the city, actively teaching compassion to our children becomes a critical task.

To begin, remember that most children are naturally empathetic. To understand what I mean, think about the last time you saw a group of toddlers. If one toddler falls and begins to cry, it often sets off a chain reaction ... soon many, if not all of the toddlers are crying in empathy. This natural empathy can be built upon without endangering your child by talking about the feelings you see your child experiencing when they come across someone in less fortunate circumstances. Recognition of your child's compassionate response helps make her more aware that while it may not be safe to talk to that stranger who happens to be homeless, the person is still a human being and deserves our empathy.

Showing your own feelings is equally important to recognizing your children's feelings. Most of us, however desensitized we too might be, are emotionally moved from time to time (and hopefully more frequently) by those in need whom we see on the streets. Share your feelings with your child so that he has a role model for compassion. Children who grow up in households where feelings are felt (not buried) and talked about become compassionate adults themselves.

Remember that actions speak louder than words. While talking about compassion is important, if we fail to act compassionately our children will only give it lip service themselves. Ask yourself these questions about the ways in which you act:

* Do you contribute time or money to help those less fortunate?

* Do your children witness and participate in your contribution?

* Do you require that your children (over age six) concretely help those less fortunate in some way?

While talking or walking up to a stranger on the street (homeless or otherwise) might feel dangerous to you there are plenty of organizations that provide ways in which you can act compassionately towards those less fortunate. As you consider the ways in which you can teach your children to act compassionately, remember that children of all ages learn more from concrete acts than from abstract ones. For example, encouraging your child to pick out some of her old toys and having her physically accompany you to deliver them to Ronald McDonald House is concrete. On the other hand, writing a check out for $25 and sticking it in an envelope may feel concrete to you, but is abstract to a child. Your child will internalize compassion more fully if she comes with you to Ronald McDonald House. Consider some of these other following concrete possibilities:

* Volunteer at a soup kitchen or overnight shelter (children can participate in serving food at many soup kitchens in the city, and while they can't sleep overnight in a shelter, having Mom or Dad away for the evening and knowing that this is why will help teach compassion.)

* Many organizations sponsor runs or walks to benefit a variety of causes. Participate with your child in a walk or run to raise money for a cause. From cancer, to AIDS, to saving the rainforest -- there are bound to be one or more causes which will stir your compassion sufficiently for you and your children to get involved. And while the money part may feel abstract, the running or walking is concrete.

* Visit the elderly. Reading or talking to someone who is confined in a home, engaging them in a sing-a-long, or performing a song, dance, or play for them is a concrete way for your children to make a difference and learn compassion.

* Think about your neighbors. While the homeless are those most obviously in need, children can also learn compassion from helping out a neighbor. One family brought hot meals for several weeks to a neighbor in their building when she broke her leg and had trouble moving about. The children took turns delivering the meal and visiting for a few minutes each day.

These are only a very few of the numerous teaching opportunities in which we can actively help our children learn compassion. As you consider what's right for your family, it's important not to forget balance. You do need to keep your children safe, you must appeal to them at their particular developmental level, you can't ignore your and their scheduling needs with regard to school and extracurricular activities. But if your children have only these things and are not given the opportunity to serve those less fortunate, then you are neglecting an important part of parenting and your children will be poorer in spirit because of it.