Admit it, we’ve all at one stage seen a crying child throwing a tantrum on the floor and thought to ourselves, ‘When I raise children they will never behave like that.’ Fast forward a few years and you’re stood in that very same spot, your child turning a scary shade of red as they scream for a toy they want but can’t have, aware of eagle-eyed expectant mothers giving you that very same judgement.
Before we have children, we are all “perfect” parents. You tell yourself that you will never raise your voice, that you’ll never turn to bribes, and that everything will go smoothly. But it’s never quite that simple. Raising children is hard, compassionate work, and it’s life-long. When they are young, the time is ripe to instill habits that will last throughout their lives—behaviors that teach them to be loving and compassionate toward themselves and others. Each of us is born with the ability to love and be compassionate, but it is something that has to be fostered and nurtured throughout our lives. In this world that can feel very scary at times, its critical to teach and practice compassion.
Here are twelve ways to raise more compassionate children (and increase your own compassion too):
1. Practice Self-Compassion
Unfortunately, we’re often our very own worst critics. In fact, sometimes we can be just plain vicious to ourselves. Have you ever burst into a fit of frustration when an outfit didn’t quite look right, only to yell a little and cuss out your body in anger? Now imagine speaking that way to your friend, or a loved one. God forbid, even your child. Does it make your skin crawl? I thought so.
A therapist once told me that I had a very negative relationship with myself and that I needed to give myself a break from time to time. She told me that the language I expressed when talking in reference to myself was very harsh. I’d say things like, ‘I know I sound stupid, but . . .’ or ‘I hate myself for being this way’ and when she looked across at me— in that placid way therapists do—she told me that I needed to be kinder to myself. She told me that I had been through a lot, and that being mindful of that and displaying kindness to myself would be a great place to start healing. And she was right.
She told me that the language I expressed when talking in reference to myself was very harsh. I’d say things like, ‘I know I sound stupid, but . . . ‘ or ‘I hate myself for being this way’ and when she looked across at me— in that placid way therapists do—she told me that I needed to be kinder to myself.
Being self-compassionate is about being aware of your suffering and having a positive approach to it. Take a moment to remind yourself that other people feel the same way you do, and that you’re not alone. Instead of being so quick to reprimand yourself with destructive criticism, take a second to encourage yourself. Talk to yourself the same way you would encourage a friend or loved one. When your children see that you’re not always perfect but that you handle it well, it will teach them that they’re not failures when they too struggle.
Your children will also witness the way you refer to yourself, so teach them how important it is to care for yourself just as much as those around you. It’s okay not to be the best but it is important to be happy.
2. Let Your Children Witness Compassion
It’s the most obvious step to take; be compassionate yourself and showcase this to your children. Children are impressionable little beings and who better to copy than their own parents whom they’re with each and every day? Be mindful of the way you act and interact with not only your children but those around you. Greeting people in a friendly manner will teach your children to do the same. Often your children will take note of the way people react to your kindness and will start to act the same way. If someone ever meets your kindness with rudeness react with more kindness; this will teach your children to not let someone else’s rude behavior change their own. You may be served by a rude cashier. Instead of being snarky in response, be kind and then when outside say something like, ‘That cashier must have been having a really bad day to have spoken to us in a way that was a bit mean, don’t you think?’ They’ll think about this and then you can talk about it, and your child will remember how you dealt with that in future situations and apply the same kindness.
Be conscious of the way you talk. Every single parent will recall the horror of hearing their own words being parroted back to them through the mouth of their own child. Speak around your children as you wish for them to speak to others. Make your words and your actions the very best they can be, and be cautious of the type of language you use. If you swear, your children will think this is acceptable for them too.
The most important way to teach compassion is by example. Be kind and affectionate towards your partner, friends and loved ones and even family pets. When your child sees the way you are with those round you they will likely act the same way.
3. Surround Yourself With Compassion
We’re all a product of our environment, so it’s important to surround ourselves with the types of things and people who mirror what we stand for. It’s great to find like-minded parents whose children have the same values as yours so that you can create a type of community for them to feel a part of.
It’s also a great idea to discuss compassion with your children. Explain to them in a gentle manner why you choose to do something and the impact of your actions. Teach them why you support kindness and then allow them to witness it firsthand. Try to find a book that has this message and take the time to read it with your children and explain it as you go. Be mindful to ask them, ‘What do you think that means?’ or ‘Why do you think they did that?’ This not only allows you to have a conversation but it will allow you to gauge how your children respond, sparking further discussion.
Of course, nothing is as powerful as showing your children compassion in the real world. Whether you’re encouraging them to show it to their sibling or you’re highlighting it with an action, this will help them to instill the act in their everyday life and become more mindful. Why not donate some old clothes to a charity and take your children along? You can explain why you’re donating your items, and explain that not everyone is as lucky to have new things. This will help them to really think more about those around them. Other opportunities abound, including local food banks and shelters.
4. Set Clear Rules & Consequences
Having structure is crucial to building compassion in children. Without structure or boundaries things can seem unstable and unpredictable. Children feel safe when expectations are clearly outlined, and consequences are clear. This doesn’t mean making your children afraid of wrong-doing because of punishment. It’s about teaching them right from wrong and enforcing your rules.
You don’t want your children to feel as though they’re living in a military camp; it’s not about making them feel bad for making too much noise or wanting to play with their toys. From the onset, there needs to me firm expectations placed within your home as to what is and what is not acceptable. For example, ‘It is not acceptable to jump on the furniture.’ Then explain to them exactly why this isn’t acceptable and what the consequences will be if they still do so after being explained that it’s not okay.
Children need to learn that their actions have consequences and that there are some things that will have a negative consequence if the mutual need is not met. This will allow children to see the results of their behavior on the other people, animals, and belongings in their lives. When children learn to acknowledge that certain behavior is met with a negative reaction, they have a greater ability to understand respect, and will make better choices for themselves and those around them.
5. Teach Your Kids True Value
In a world that is governed by materialistic things, it is easy to be swept up in the hype of the latest and greatest. Try to teach your children from a young age that life isn’t about things. Toys and electronics such as iPads and televisions are a luxury not a need. Teach your children that they won’t be given toys just because they want them. They have to earn them, work for them and learn just how much they cost.
A perfect way to teach compassion and value to your children is with their own money. These money boxes from Jones & Mae are brilliant for this practice. They come in a trio with Spend, Save and Share money boxes, which will help your children to budget their money from an early age and also to learn the true cost of things. Allow them the freedom to choose which pot to place their money in, and hopefully they will learn how to manage their small funds and be more compassionate when it comes to spending.
6. Label Kindness
When it comes to the way your children behave it’s really important to instill positive reinforcement. When your child displays an act of kindness, such as letting a friend play with their toy or being considerate to their sibling, take the time to really acknowledge it. Come down to the same level as your child and feed them positive words. Say things like, ‘You’re very thoughtful for doing that’ or ‘I’m sure that your sibling felt really happy that you decided to share your toys with them’ so that they’re aware of what kindness is and how they can express it more in the world around them.
It’s also incredibly important that you believe your child is doing good. If you regard your children as though they’re always up to no good, sooner or later they will be up to no good. Instead, assume the best. Believe that your child values other people and wants to help others, and they will begin to live up to those expectations. If they do occasionally display bad behavior, simply tell them how disappointed you feel and go on to explain a different choice or behavior. This outlines another way that they could handle a situation that they will hopefully remember in the future.
7. Connect With Your Children On Their Level
It’s very easy as we get older to forget what it felt like to be a child. To remember a time when we felt like our voice wasn’t heard, or that our words didn’t matter, or how we felt like something wasn’t fair. Leading by example with our own children is a perfect place to set the grounds for compassion. As frustrating and tiring as it can be to raise children, and there are days when you just want to lock yourself in a cupboard and hide, try to refrain from using phrases like, ‘because I said so!’
Children need to understand that they have a voice and that what they say matters. When they speak, you will listen. Instead of losing your patience and screaming, take a few deep breaths and calm down before responding. This will prevent you from saying things you don’t mean. Then, instead of towering above your child, lower yourself down to their level and really connect with them when you speak, engaging their attention the same way they want with you.
If your children are wrong about something don’t shut them down or mock them. Take the time to explain to them why something is wrong in a way that they can understand. Really try to allow your children to feel as though they have an opinion, and it’s important to let them come to their own decisions about things themselves. If you disagree or hold different beliefs and opinions then after allowing your children to explain their thoughts to you, explain to them why you hold the opinions and beliefs that you do, and have a friendly discussion about it. This will help them learn how to be empathetic to other people and their views, while also learning to articulate themselves in a fair and calm way.
8. Give Your Children Responsibility
Your home should be a place where all beings feel appreciated and loved. This also means that you’re all responsible for the management and upkeep of the house. Just because you’re a mother or a father it doesn’t mean that you should rush around all day while your kids make a mess without consequence. Of course, they should be encouraged to play with toys and make a mess – they’re children after all – but they need to learn that once they’re done, they need to put those toys away before moving onto something else.
Don’t place a price upon these chores; doing good deeds for financial gain is not something you want to teach.
Another way to instill responsibility is to give your children chores. Be mindful of their age. Simple tasks like asking them to carry something for you or helping you wash up, can help encourage a sense of community in the family. Don’t place a price upon these chores; doing good deeds for financial gain is not something you want to teach. Your children should want to help out in your home simply because you’ve asked and a thank you should be sufficient enough. After all, you’re all a family – you all need to work together to maintain a happy medium.
9. Highlight The Good
I remember, as a child, feeling elated whenever I got positive feedback, be it a compliment during a dance class or thanked for a card I gave someone. It’s something that I have carried with me into adult life. I respond well to positive encouragement and acknowledgement for the things I do; it makes you feel like you’re doing a good job and it motivates you to keep going.
Try to do the same for your child. Whether they show good behavior or show kindness to another, highlight their accomplishments and tell them often that you’re proud of them; the praise is contagious and it’s a great way to increase compassion in your children.
Also, make a habit of pointing out the good in the world with both your children and family. The world can sometimes feel scary and overwhelming so try to pause and recognize the good you see.
“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.” — Fred Rogers
10. Teach Your Children That You Care About How They Act
Teaching your children that how they act matters to you is a great way of getting them to be more considerate and compassionate. It’s natural for a child to see a situation as humorous when it’s the opposite. Don’t scold your children for this, instead point out their mistake. Explain the situation through your eyes. For example, your child may laugh if someone falls over. Make a point of saying, ‘I know your reaction was to laugh, but look at that man’s face. He’s in pain and looks sad and he’s not laughing, is he?’ This will allow your child to take a second look at a situation and hopefully see it another way.
In social situations, your child may say something that embarrasses you or that is rude. Don’t let rudeness pass but also don’t ridicule your children to hide your own embarrassment. It’s natural to squirm inside at something they’ve said and overcompensate by telling them off. It’s important to understand that they’re still learning and they’re going to make mistakes. Again, come down to their level and talk to them. Say, ‘When you said that you really hurt their feelings. Can you see why?’
While it’s important to teach your children that their actions matter to you, it’s also vital that you act in a way that you’d want them to mimic. This means respecting your children in order to gain their respect. Just because you’re the adult it doesn’t mean that you can do however you please without being mindful of your child’s feelings. If your children witness you speaking to other people with little respect, they will do the same. If you and your partner have a disagreement, explain to your children that, ‘Mommy and daddy disagreed on something but we love one another enough to listen to what each person has to say.’ This will allow your children to see firsthand that while their opinion matters, it’s also essential to be mindful of others opinions, too.
11. Allow Them To Enjoy Their Childhood
Nothing should be encouraged more than the freedom of childhood. And childhood doesn’t mean electronics. As your child gets older it’s almost inevitable that they will be aware of social media and will want to use electronics. So encourage your children to play outdoors, and try to do the same. If they’re playing, but they see their parents on their phone 24/7, they’re going to have an increased interest in the phone. So try to put down your own phone and focus on them, building important relationships as well as memorable moments with them.
As they get older, you’re not always going to be able to control what they see on TV or overhear people discussing. It’s important that you don’t shut them down if they’re wanting to talk about a topic. Instead, encourage them to ask, listen and learn. Ask them how they’re feeling about something they’ve seen on TV and take the time to really hear them. When they do want to use electronics and join social media sites, try to teach them ways in which they can use them to contribute good to the world. We’re not going to be able to shield our kids from electronic devices, but we can influence how, when, and where they use them.
12. Teach Them To Express Their Emotions
However much you try to help your children they’re going to hit emotional speed bumps along the way. Your children need to be able to know that it’s okay to express how they’re feeling. Its your job to teach them how to express themselves in a compassionate manner. For example, if they’re feeling frustrated and they take this out on another child, perhaps a sibling, you need to reinforce that this isn’t kind behavior.
Anger is a huge emotion to bear, and sometimes, even adults get it wrong. Our kids tend to model our behavior, so the best way to help them learn how to manage anger, is by keeping yourself in check. Don’t become angry just because your child is struggling; they need to know that you will stay calm and help them when they experience challenges. It goes without saying that your children should be spoiled with hugs and kisses, not to mention unconditional love, so they really need to feel this during trying moments.
Acknowledge that your child is angry, try to get to the bottom of why that is, and then help them to work through it. Childhood can be, at times, overwhelming, so it really helps to talk to them. Discover what made them angry and how you can both work together to improve the situation. If they’re angry due to an altercation with another child, try to help them understand that the other child, too, may be angry so that they’re conscious of how their actions impact others. Still allow them the opportunity to express how they feel instead of holding it in. If they have an outburst, simply work through it. When they’re calm, discuss ways in which they can manage their anger differently in the future.