When I was growing up in El Salvador, my mother taught me a useful and powerful lesson that has stuck with me ever since. She encouraged me to see that there is a world outside the comfort of our home, with people and beings in need, and that by being present for them, we could make their world better, or at least improve their day.
My fondest memories with my mother are when we brought cake and a piñata to children in an orphanage for “Día del Niño” (Child’s Day); we also visited the elderly or the sick on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. These memories have stayed in my mind and heart and influenced who I wanted to become as a person. They help me to access my own sense of kindness (being considerate and friendly) and compassion. Thupten Jinpa, best known as the Dalai Lama’s translator, defines compassion as “a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see the suffering relived.”
I truly believe that being compassionate is powerful and if we practice compassion regularly, we can make the world a better place. Having compassion doesn’t mean that we are weak or that we are going to let people disrespect our boundaries. It means that we recognize that we are innately good, that we care about others, and that we wish to see them be happy. Joy and feelings of warmth in our body are some of the secondary effects. And when we feel joyful, that joy can be contagious. Most children are naturally empathic. But we can still encourage them to practice being kind and compassionate as they grow more aware of their world. Here are five tips to encourage children to be kind and compassionate:
Begin by sharing with your child that all beings have a family–insects, animals, flowers, even trees—and that “they all want to be happy, just like you.” For example, when you see a bug in your home, make time to take it outside where it can find its family. This simple gesture can help develop an understating that all living beings, no matter their size, species, color, race, or religion, are here on this planet wanting to survive and thrive.
Show Kindness and Compassion Toward Yourself
Being a parent is challenging and we make mistakes all the time (at least I do). If you forget to do something important, for example, instead of talking negatively to yourself, especially out loud, model having some self-compassion. Speaking kindly and with a warm voice to yourself like, “Oh no. Today, I had a very long day and forgot to email your teacher. I am so sorry. I made a mistake. I think I need a hug right now.” Children are always watching us and the way we speak to ourselves. This can have a tremendous impact on how they see and speak to themselves in the future.
Cultivate Acts of Kindness Together
Foster an awareness in children of how others in your community, or outside of it, might not have all the resources they need to live a comfortable life. For example, make a plan to help collect clothing or buy school supplies for children in need. Make a batch of cookies for your local firefighters, or volunteer at a local animal shelter. Find what resonates with you as an individual or a family. The idea is to perform acts of kindness and compassion regularly, not only on Thanksgiving or another special time of year.
Expressing our gratitude toward a compassionate element or being such as the sun, the ocean, or a big tree is a sweet way to teach children about compassion. For example, they can say something like, “Thank you, sun, for giving your warmth to all of us every day,” or “Thank you, tree, for providing shade and oxygen to all of us.” Invite them to visualize being those compassionate beings and describe how that feels. You might give them an image to help understand the concept, such as, “You can be warm like the sun, or as comforting as a tree, or as welcoming as the big blue ocean.” Children can also come up with an image of their own compassionate being, person, or mentor, someone who can inspire them and whose presence they can evoke in the future if they need comfort.
Create a Kindness and Compassion Jar
Invite children to draw or write down on a piece of paper an act of kindness or compassion they did or saw and place it in a specially marked jar. During dinnertime, you can read each family member’s paper out loud and discuss your feelings. The more you encourage your children to focus on doing and savoring positive events in their life, the more you are fostering the chances of their continuing to share kindness and compassion throughout their lives. And perhaps this might help them develop a sense of purpose and meaning, just like it did for me.
Deborah Salazar Shapiro, MSW, is a psychotherapist, mindfulness teacher, author, and artist who was born and raised in San Salvador, El Salvador. She has been working with children and families for over 15 years. Deborah holds an MSW from the University of Southern California and a master’s-level degree in psychology from the University Dr. Jose Matias Delgado in San Salvador. She lives in San Diego, California with her husband, two daughters, and a wise cat named Thay. For more information, please visit www.DeborahSalazarShapiro.com.