Life was so different when we grew up. Kids currently must contend with school shootings, terrorism, the intrusion of technology, among many other things. As parents we go into self-protective mode and in many ways so do our children. This self-protection can often perpetuate the thinking and hyper-focusing of our own needs, rather than the needs of others. It is our responsibility to teach our children to look outward and connect with others in a fundamental and meaningful way. We must put concerted effort to instill kindness, compassion and empathy in them. Through engaging in community service and advocacy this can be facilitated. The “intention of doing” is not enough or as powerful as the actual “act of doing.”
The practice of care and compassion in children should be reinforced so that it becomes habitual and instinctual. This stresses the need to teach children these values from when they are born so that it becomes innate. It mimics what we do when we teach them about the things we value and desire for them to value as well. This includes the values of personal hygiene, health, traditions, etc. It takes mindful and direct effort to fortify these values.
Instilling the value of compassion and advocacy includes:
- Modeling respectful behavior toward others. Children learn and mimic the behavior of their parents. If it expected that children exemplify compassion and care they must observe that type of behavior from their parents to others and from their parents to them personally. I constantly update my children on my foundation work and other charitable organization I’m involved with. When appropriate, I give them tasks to do to assist me with the work that I’m doing. I convey the process to them and the direct results of their help.
- Acts of kindness and care should be an ongoing activity carried out by children continually. Going to a charity function once a year or once every six months is not enough to teach these core values. Otherwise children identify or link the charity happening at a certain time or event. For example, if every Christmas/Chanukah a family goes to a soup kitchen to help, children view Christmas/Chanukah as a distinct time of helping and do not necessarily transfer the need to help at other times/occasions.
- Do caring things that entail projects being carried out from beginning to end so that they can appreciate the process of giving. For example, every Friday have children take 1/3 (or any other identified amount) from their allowance to put in a charity box. Save that money up for eight weeks and go with them to purchase a toy. Follow-up with bringing them to a children’s hospital or daycare center to donate that toy. Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a leading parenting expert and author suggests splitting the funds in four ways: save, spend, donate and invest. A percentage of the overall amount can be put aside for each of them. At the end of each month they can select an organization or cause that they feel is meaningful to each of them and donate and learn the value of saving and investing as well.
- Empower children to select causes that they personally feel passionate toward or can relate to. This will enable them to feel like they made the choice and have a personal investment in achieving charitable goals. Involving them instills further motivation, dedication and desire to help. Some examples could include when children have birthday parties, instead of them getting a plethora of random gifts of which half barely get touched, ask guests to donate a dollar amount of their choice that they are comfortable with. Let them know that a half or third of it, whatever you’re comfortable with, will be donated to a charity that your child selected and the other half or third will go toward purchasing one memorable gift that your child selects.
- Teach them the value of being empathetic. Make it a point to discuss with them how they feel about various interactions, actions, and circumstances that they are confronted with. Also ask how they think another person may have felt – suggest that they “put themselves in another person’s shoes.” If they are not able to get there independently, make connections for them so that they can internalize how what they say and do makes an incredible impact on others (both for the positive and negative). With gaining compassion for other individuals it helps to also foster self-compassion and the ability to be sensitive, caring and compassionate toward one’s self. They are better able to appreciate human frailty, vulnerability and our basic human needs.
- Periodically review with them our fundamental responsibility to give back to the community and assisting others in need as a moral, ethical and personal responsibility.
- When your children are volunteering, initiate conversations with them about their experiences. Ensure that your conversations created awareness about diversity, mutual respect, working with persons of authority and respecting and appreciating difference.
These lessons are invaluable. Talking about them is just not as powerful as their first-hand experience with them. Kindness, compassion and empathy are not inborn; it can be fostered and fortified with mindful and meaningful effort.