From the moment you first held your baby in your arms, you’ve wanted to protect them. To shelter them from harm and teach them right from wrong. You’ve also wanted to celebrate them at their best, guide them at their worst, and encourage them to be the best version of themselves as they step into the world on their own. And if you want to raise compassionate kids, there are some things to avoid.
So much of the way we parent is influenced by our upbringing, so it’s essential to take the time to reflect on patterns that might not be serving our children or us. Read on to learn straightforward, uncomplicated methods to incorporate into your parenting style if you want to raise a loving, caring, and compassionate kid.
Learn to Be Mindful of Your Behaviors
Before learning about the most effective ways to inspire compassion in our kids, we must look in the mirror and acknowledge ways we may unknowingly contribute to negative behavior. One of the biggest missteps licensed psychologist Dr. Samantha Kohn, Ph.D., has observed throughout her career is parents not being more mindful of their own behaviors and attitudes. “Even what we consider little, everyday behaviors, such as using ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ or holding a door open, especially with members of our own household, are often overlooked,” Dr. Kohn explains. “We become too casual and familiar with our children or family members and forget to be respectful to each other.”
Dr. Kohn works to help children, adolescents, and young adults to manage behavioral issues and create emotionally healthy environments.
It’s helpful to identify issues as you recognize patterns and shape new healthy habits as a family. If your kids consistently exhibit the following behaviors, it could indicate their empathy is not well-developed. Or they may need support to increase their emotional literacy:
- Your child expresses little interest in the feelings of others.
- They struggle to identify emotions in themselves and others and regulate or manage big feelings.
- Your child withholds or can’t provide comfort to friends in need.
- Your child is overly judgmental.
- Your child has difficulty apologizing or accepting responsibility for their behavior.
- Your child does not express gratitude to others.
Mistakes to Avoid When Raising Compassionate Kids
Here are the top four parenting mistakes to avoid to help you raise a compassionate kid:
1. Not Modeling Self-awareness or Kindness
As parents, we must remember that our children learn from observing us. Showing a negative or intolerant attitude toward others (regardless of the social setting) can normalize incredibly damaging behaviors to model. For example, a parent can model kindness and understanding instead of acting impatient and harsh toward a store clerk who made a mistake by stating, “It’s okay. We all make mistakes sometimes.”1
Parents must consider how they treat their children and engage with others in their environment. Our kids are always watching, so we must frame interactions in ways we want them to replicate to help them become compassionate.
2. Only Focusing on Your Child’s Feelings
Of course, all parents want to encourage strength and high self-esteem, but it should never be at the cost of others. When dealing with peer conflict, parents might focus on their child’s feelings and not how others in the situation may feel or be affected. It is essential to recognize and validate our children’s emotions while also helping them understand the emotions of others.2
We reinforce empathy, understanding, and consideration for others by making room for alternative perspectives. You can help your child by asking them questions when reading a book or watching TV and getting them to reflect on how others feel, like, “Their friends weren’t sharing. How do you think that made them feel?” And teaching them what different facial expressions look like to help them decode feelings. You can do this by showing them in a mirror a feeling (an exaggerated frown or scowl for anger etc.) and use the mirror to get them to copy or match your face or find some printouts and images from the internet of different emotional facial expressions.
3. Rewarding Overly Competitive Behavior
Even with the best intentions, parents can accidentally reward problematic behavior that doesn’t foster compassion. This doesn’t mean you should stop celebrating or congratulating your little one on a top score or a big goal in Saturday’s game. It’s beneficial for parents to recognize and praise childhood accomplishments, but Dr. Kohn cautions against applauding behavior that is too competitive or focused on winning without regard for others. This mentality can develop an indifferent attitude toward your child’s peers. It’s vital to teach them to win and lose graciously by reflecting on how others might feel about losing and focusing on their efforts rather than the outcome or winning.3
4. Associating Sensitivity with Weakness
Generations of parents have reinforced toxic gender-specific expectations on their kids. Instead of assertive girls feeling empowered, they were scolded for being bossy. For many decades, the “boys don’t cry” mantra crept into every corner of manhood, resulting in many men suppressing and stunting their emotional development and expression. Parents discourage children from expressing their feelings by perceiving sensitivity as a sign of weakness. Alternatively, parents should make space for kids to show sensitivity and be aware of the emotions or attitudes of those around them.4
Methods to Help Raise Compassionate Kids
Once you recognize the ways your words or actions may hurt more than help your kids develop compassion, try practicing these easy-to-implement methods as a family:
Compassionate kids tend to have a strong sense of empathy. Often, the ability to understand thoughts, feelings, and experiences from another perspective is a skill someone develops long-term, so your child is never too young to start learning.5
“It is important for parents to consistently model and encourage empathy in their children,” explains Dr. Kohn. “This can be done through everyday interactions, such as taking the time to ask your child about their feelings, or ask about someone else’s feelings, whether it be a real person or even a character on TV or in a movie.”
Lend a Helping Hand
Parents should continuously encourage helping behaviors from their children. Even a small acknowledgment, like thanking your child for helping you wash the dishes or set the table for dinner, can significantly impact how their brain regards specific behavior.
“Exposing them to opportunities to come to the aid of others, such as volunteering in an animal shelter or food pantry, is a great way to help develop compassion,” suggests Dr. Kohn. By prioritizing a volunteer activity within your family schedule, you will reinforce the value of helping others and building a strong sense of community.
Life’s challenges and daily distractions can get in the way of practicing gratitude, even as adults. However, baking this mindfulness tactic into our routines makes us healthier and happier people.6 So, what can daily gratitude do for kids? By taking a few minutes at the start or the end of the day to share conversations about what we are grateful for with our families, we can encourage our kids to develop meaningful habits they can carry into adulthood. Older children can even try out a gratitude journal for a dedicated place to write down their feelings and thoughts. It’s also a great way to address adversity instead of shying away from difficult subjects. “As children get older, parents can make them aware of the misfortune of others in a non-judgmental way and explore their feelings about it,” says Dr. Kohn.
There is no one way to parent and no universally “perfect” personality to mold our kids into. But we can follow some guidelines to teach our children to be quick to kindness instead of indifference—the compassionate kids who spring into action to help a struggling classmate instead of piling onto their problems. By raising compassionate kids, parents can help their children reach expected emotional and physical milestones, engage appropriately in the social world around them, and be able to cope with challenging life events. When children experience positive mental well-being, they also experience a good quality of life. They can function well and engage with the people and world around them, including within families, educational settings, and the community.