Parenting Perspective: Teaching compassion

August 31, 2010

It was just a few years ago that the dogs (Labrador retrievers) simply tolerated Nicholas as he would sometimes pull their tail or put sunglasses or a baseball cap on them. But as Nicholas has matured, he has developed compassion and kindness, and it's manifested in his caring for Max and Corey. Of course he has plenty of "stuffed" animals that he also loves, but there is a special relationship with the real pets, and it's nice to watch.

Most child psychologists emphasize the importance of raising a child who is kind to others. But how to do this is the crucial part. It's not lecturing or visiting a soup kitchen (although there is a benefit to that)... but it's the day-to-day life experiences like answering a child's questions or helping them to understand the fragility of others.

For example, Nicholas asked me a while ago why we don't take our two dogs on really long walks anymore. When I explained to him that they're both old and one of them has developed hip problems, he began to develop a certain gentleness and tenderness when it comes to Max and Corey. He hugs them more and always seems to make sure they're comfortable when the dogs are sleeping. (I hope I get the same treatment down the road!)

We as parents have influence on our child's ability to empathize. And here's some suggestions I came across that we can continue to encourage it - in small doses:

1. Speak softly and show your child what kindness looks like to others - even animals.

2. Say I'm sorry. If you've been short-tempered with your child, apologize. We all make mistakes, but it's how you address them afterward that makes the difference. He'll learn that everyone, even parents can admit when they're wrong.

3. Show your child that actions have consequences. When he or she gives you or their pets a big hug, make sure they know how special it is - that a little hug can carry you through the day, even lift one's spirits.

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