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Teaching kids compassion — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I have a sweet 2-year-old daughter and a rambunctious 5-year-old son. Now that she has better language skills, they are just starting to really enjoy each other — giving me some welcome breaks from having to arbitrate between them. Being a sibling myself, I know there will still be rivalries and conflicts ahead, but what can I be doing to assure that they both grow into compassionate human beings?

Mommy the Ref

Don’t miss last week’s column The benefit of speaking a foreign language at home — Good Parenting

Dear Mommy,

A worthy goal indeed! There is a developmental aspect to compassion, which is to say that early childhood is the best time to instill the value of being kind to others. Having a sibling is the perfect learning lab for compassion. (Parents of singletons can compensate with spending compassionate energies toward close friends, cousins, pets and charities.)

Research suggests that one’s well of compassion is filled from having been the recipient of it. Infants are not expected to understand anyone’s needs but their own. And they don’t understand it when these needs are not immediately and satisfactorily addressed. Hunger (or a wet diaper, or boredom, or confusion) causes discomfort which causes fussiness which should cause an immediate response from someone capable of meeting that need. Responsive caregiving brings the food, the dry diaper, the entertainment or the reassurances the baby expects.

Responsive child care — from parents or others — builds a foundation of security which fosters a child’s ability to reach out positively to others. Older children, then, can join in the acts of the adults toward the younger siblings who, in turn, will share their well-nurtured benevolence toward others.

Around age 3, a child experiments with causing emotions in others — for better and for worse — seeing what it is he can do to make someone else smile and what he can do to cause someone to frown or cry. He is cataloging his cause and effect research, just like he has been cataloging his effects on the physical world since before he was born. These experiments help him understand why people act kindly or unkindly toward him, and help him to choose how to act toward others. This is a key time to help a child with compassion skills.

Modeling compassion

Your words and actions are being monitored both for what effect your children are having on you, as well as for an example of how to behave toward others. Children need exemplary models of adult behavior that take other people’s needs and feelings into account. They are taking note of your acts of kindness toward themselves, toward other family members, toward your friends and their friends, toward strangers and all the people you interact with each day. They also overhear your comments about world events and the goings on of people they know. Whenever possible, choose to highlight the good rather than the bad in others, and to set a good example yourself of behaving compassionately.

Coaching compassion

Young children are new at so many things. They don’t always have an idea of what to do in every situation. If you see a conflict brewing between your little ones, offer a suggestion of words and actions that will solve the problem. “Ask her is she’s finished with that.” “Let’s find the other one for you to play with.” The situation might warrant turn taking, trading for another toy, dividing the item in half (a box of markers, a lump of play dough, the area in a sandbox) or creatively using it at the same time (rolling a truck back and forth with each other). Be the coach, not the referee, who suggests the play that will best assist everyone involved in the game.

Practicing compassion

Imaginary play — with dolls or with people — is an excellent way to learn how to treat others compassionately. While your children are still young enough to want you to play with them, you can enter their make believe worlds with an agenda of your own. Simply steer the pretend play toward treating others with kindness and make a big deal out of how that turned out to be the best thing to do. “Oh no, here comes the shark again! What? He wants to apologize for scaring us? And, look, he’s brought us a basket of muffins. Thank you, Mr. Shark! We would love for you to stay to eat them with us!”

Real Rewards

The best way for anyone to learn new behavior is to recognize the reward in the behavior itself. Eating nutritious food results in physical energy, mental clarity and a positive mood. Being mindful of these benefits helps one to continue the good behavior. Likewise, you can ask your son to notice the smile on his sister’s face when he lets her have a turn ahead of him. When he recognizes that he has caused the smile by his actions, ask him to check if there’s a warm feeling somewhere in his chest. Almost equally (because she is so much younger), your 2-year-old can be shown how her kindness has changed her brother’s face from a scowl to a smile. If he’s willing, you can make a game of it. “He doesn’t get the car he wants. See a sad face. He gets the car. Happy face!” Your own beaming face will further reinforce the satisfying feelings in her chest.

As your children move out into the world of playmates, they will soon see how kindnesses are rewarded with friendships. Acting compassionately is a habit that can be nurtured until the actions themselves are all that’s needed to keep it going.

Aesop, the wise storyteller tell us, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” Your efforts to instill compassion in your children will benefit them as well as all those to whom they bestow it.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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