I am interviewed twice a month (usually the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays) on BYU radio. This week was about “How to Raise Compassionate Children.” The one this week, on Tuesday, September 6th was responding to Hurricane Harvey that devastated Texas, as well as other natural disasters. Many compassionate people have come forward to help and have reminded us that the power of compassion is always greater than the power of any disaster.
If you want to listen to the interview, here is a link. Here are the main points I discussed.
- Expose children to a variety of experiences. “Compassionate” is to be open-hearted and open-minded, to feel confident in talking with people who are different. Children need direction and opportunities to get out of their comfort zone and see the wide world around them. In doing so, they will be more aware of the needs of others and respond more compassionately. How do we expose them to different experiences? Travel within your community to see places that reflect a variety of lifestyles and perspectives. Then go beyond your borders into other regions, and even countries. Don’t just stick to the touristy spots and resort strips; drive to where the “real” people live and shop and worship. Stop and talk to strangers to hear their stories. Be interested in others and model to your children how to see into the hearts of others by listening and asking questions. Our children have enjoyed hosting international students from time to time. We’ve also benefited from reading books together at bedtime to learn from the lives of characters very different from us. As you read, ask questions such as, “How do you think that person feels right now? How did that make you feel? How does this character inspire you? What would you do in this situation?” Help to process their feelings and evoke the compassion within them.
- Use the technique of “induction.” This parenting strategy teaches children to become aware of the consequences of their actions. It helps develop empathy for others. Rather than stating, “You’d better invite Sarah to your birthday party or she’ll feel left out,” help her to discover that for herself. Don’t TELL a child how to feel but let her feel it herself. “How do you think Sarah will feel if you don’t invite her to your birthday party?” or “How would you feel if you weren’t invited to a party?” Other inductive phrases sound like: “What did grandma’s face look like when you gave her the flowers?” “If you practice the piano, how do you think the people will feel when they hear such beautiful music?” “What do you think will happen when you are honest about returning that money?” “If you share your markers, don’t you think Sammy will want to share his with you?”
- Involve children in humanitarian and service opportunities. This can start on the micro level, within the family. Have family members draw names and do secret acts of service for each other. This is a popular “pixie” activity around Christmas time but can be done throughout the year. Ask your children to look for ways the family can serve others: “Who can we serve this week, or this month?” Many families encourage compassionate acts by asking their children at the end of each day, “Who did you serve today?” or “What was one nice thing you did for someone today?” And be sure to tell them what you did as well. If you do this on a regular basis, your children will learn that the question will be coming and they will dial into service opportunities. Soon, it will happen naturally. Be sure to ask the follow up reflection question: “How did you feel when you did that nice thing for another person?” It’s great to do service for others anonymously. Kids love the mystery of it all. It’s also fun to involve the family in projects with others so join clubs or others organizations to mobilize great efforts and outcomes. Finally, when the time is right and you are able, send your children (or go as a family) to do a major humanitarian project. My oldest child went to China as a volunteer to teach English after graduating from high school. Another child went with the Rotary Club in her junior year to build a house in Mexico. Another child volunteered at an orphanage in Quito, Ecuador the summer before her senior year. These are life-changing and eye-opening experiences.
- Discuss community and world events in natural conversations. Because of the nature of disasters like Hurricane Harvey, too much information delivered in an anxious tone can overwhelm and worry children. So as you talk about world events, be sure to keep a positive tone. I love the quote by Fred Rogers who said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” So focus on the helpers when talking about unfortunate circumstances and how you can be helpers, too. Rather than feeling like the world is out of control, doing service helps a child to take control and empowers them to make a difference.