Let’s talk about ‘compassion education’. We’ve heard lots of parents asking how to teach kids to be kind and compassionate; it can be tricky in this busy world with a focus on advertising and the inevitable ‘I wants’ from kids. With Father’s Day having just been, I got to thinking about words my Dad used to say; phrases that were on repeat throughout my childhood and that, in turn, got me thinking, “What will my kids remember me saying?” I think that right at the top of the list, maybe just behind “Hurry up!” and “Please, just EAT!” will be: “Be kind. Be compassionate.”
I must say these words almost daily to my two; not because they are not kind and compassionate in nature, but because if we all practised a little more kindness and compassion, well, wouldn’t the whole world be a better place to live?
Teaching compassion is not as easy you may think. Children are often inherently self-centred and empathy is not something we are born with, but there are lots of ways to develop and strengthen compassionate feelings and behaviours in our little people, and, in ourselves.
I thought I would share with you some of the ways I have made ‘compassion education’ a part of the curriculum, both within my own household and in the classrooms in which I have taught.
- Model it! I love the saying: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ and I think of this often in my interactions with and in front of my children. Life gets busy, I know this, and sometimes patience is a little thin, especially by the end of the day, but if we can show compassion to our children, they will follow that lead. Take time to give them a cuddle and a kiss when they fall over and hurt their knee. Talk them through that bad dream and stroke their hair until they drift back to sleep. Listen to them when they are sharing a problem and they will be far more likely to treat others in this same way. This also applies to showing compassion for others. Maybe a friend is going through a rough time so you cook them a meal, maybe you see someone on the street asking for money and you find a few coins to help them out. Remember, our children watch and listen to everything we say and do. Make an effort to say and do the things you want them to see and hear.
- Support it! There are so many worthy charities you can support and so many ways to do this. Here at The Sunshine Collective we provide activities and resources for children in foster care, through our partnership with The Pyjama Foundation, we sponsor a boy in Zimbabwe through World Vision, we help provide temporary housing for refugees through donating to the UNHCR and have adopted Sunday the lamb through Edgar’s Mission, but you do not have to commit to a regular direct debit in order to support a charity. You could hold a garage sale, set up a lemonade stand, donate books, toys, clothes or food or you could look at a website like Oxfam and spend a few dollars buying school books or mosquito nets for families in need. This is something I used to do with the classes I taught. Each Christmas the children would bring whatever money they could spare and we would buy a whole range of gifts on the Oxfam site. The kids loved it and got so excited about choosing from the online gift catalogue. They honestly were more excited by doing this than they were about our class Kris Kringle.
- Volunteer it! What could be more compassionate than giving up your time to help others? Visit children in hospital, or the elderly in a nursing home. You could help a charity pack and deliver donations. You could even compete in a Fun Run – the joining fee of which goes to a nominated charity.
- Own it! Owning a pet is a fabulous way to teach compassion to children. Many of us are already ticking this box, but it’s important to point out just how valuable having a pet can be in the teaching of kindness and compassion. Pets force us to put the needs of others ahead of ourselves: yes, you may be tired, but we still need to walk the dog. Pets also allow children to experience the feeling of unconditional love. My kids absolutely adore our dog Tilly, and watching them with her, the love they show towards her, well, my heart really does do a little happy dance.
- Read it! There are so many books written specifically to reinforce kindness and compassion in children. Some of our favourites are:
- The Lady in the Box by Ann McGovern
- Under the Lemon Moon by Edith Fine
- Great Joy by Kate Di Camillo
- Have You Filled a Bucket Today? By Carol McCloud
- A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Phillip C. Stead
- How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham
- A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams
- Dogger by Shirley Hughes
- The Red Balloon by A. Lamorisse
- Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers
- The Very Cranky Bear by Nick Bland
- Twinkle by Nick Bland
For older readers:
- Loser by Jerry Spinelli
- Charlotte’s Web by EB White
- Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman
- Two Weeks With the Queen by Morris Gleitzman
- The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank
These books will spark wonderful conversation with your children and will provide them with lots to think about long after the stories finish.
- Notice it! When you notice kindness or actions of compassion, point them out to your children. It might be something one of your children did, something you saw on television, or heard about on the radio, or read in the paper, or something you saw someone else do; whatever it is, make a point of noticing it. Let your children know you value those kinds of behaviours and give them examples of behaviours they can emulate.
- Watch it! Just like books, movies can us teach valuable lessons and leave us with a great deal to think about and act on. Movies can be extremely influential and sometimes lessons are learnt more quickly from an outsider on a screen, rather than a (perceived) nagging parent! There is no harm in utilising this to your own advantage and why not turn family movie night into an educational (or at the very least, thought-provoking) experience?! Here are just some of the great films you can watch with the kids in order to reinforce those compassionate feelings:
- Lilo and Stitch
- How to Train Your Dragon
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame
- Inside Out
- The Polar Express
- The Never Ending Story
- Charlotte’s Web
- A Little Princess – also a book
- The Water Horse
- Express it! Teaching your child to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ will do wonders for teaching compassion. These basic manners encourage children to actively think about the things others are doing for them. Instead of taking it for granted that you have provided them with a drink, ensuring they say ‘thank you’ will result in them noticing when a waitress in a café does the same thing. Being kind means noticing others and teaching manners helps us do that.
- Compassion it! Recently I came across The Compassion It Organisation. This is an American-based group, working to promote compassion through education. They are doing fantastic work in U.S. schools and they have a little piece of the program that we can purchase here: Compassion it wristbands. These are amazing and in my family, we all have one. They are the rubber wristbands you often see used by charities, but they have a point of difference. Not only do the bands come in two sizes: child and adult, but the inside of the band is white with black text (reading Compassion it ) and the outside of the band is black with white text. The idea of these wristbands is in the morning, you all put on your band, with the black side showing and then, through the day, the band acts as a little reminder for you to do something compassionate for someone else. When you have carried out your compassionate act, you flip the band over to show the white side. Then, when the family is back together in the evening, you can all share your stories of your compassionate activities. How awesome is that?!! My daughter, particularly, loves her wristband and it really does work to encourage kind and beautiful behaviours. You can check out more about this organisation and purchase your own wristbands at: compassionit.com
- Write it! I have been putting a note in my daughter’s lunchbox every day since she started school – that’s nearly two years of notes!! – and I often use them as a chance to remind her to be kind and compassionate. I might ask her if she’s filled someone’s bucket today, or tell her I can’t wait to hear her reason for flipping over the wristband, or simply just write: Be kind. Be compassionate. It’s not the theme of every note, but a little reminder now and then doesn’t hurt.
- Quote it! What will your kids remember you saying? There are some great quotes about kindness and compassion and for some of us, a quote can be very inspirational. Some of my favourites are:
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” – Plato
“No one has ever become poor by giving.” – The Diary of Anne Frank – the play
There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.” – John Holmes
“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” – Aesop
“Compassion is a verb.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
I’m sure there are lots of other ideas out there for how to teach compassion and we would love to hear them! If you do something with your kids that is not on this list, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook.
In the meantime, be kind, be compassionate and be brilliant!
Never miss a freebie!
Like a little brilliance in your inbox?
Sign up here to receive a free weekly planner printable.
(That's just the start of the free goodies - our subscribers are the first to receive our brilliant activity ideas for fun family time!)