One feels pity, but one has compassion. Compassion is a proactive principle at Christianity’s core: going beyond passive sympathy for another’s plight and acting to alleviate it.
But in today’s selfish culture of narcissism, how can Christians raise compassionate children who see beyond their own needs and attend to those of others?
The key lies in modelling and discussing compassionate behaviour early on and drawing out children’s innate capacity for compassion, experts say.
“Children come into this world as compassionate little beings capable of feeling for others, but we adults can knock it out of them,” says Donna Ronan, a clinical social worker and child therapist at Janeway Family Centre in St. John’s, Nfld.
Parents can avoid that by constantly displaying to even very young children the behaviour they want to instill. “Don’t worry so much whether your children are listening to you; worry about whether they’re watching you,” says Ronan, who is also a trainer in her church’s Godly Play program, which teaches youngsters about faith and liturgy through interactive stories and reflection. And they are watching you from the earliest age, says Ronan, a member of the Anglican Parish of the Good Shepherd, in Mount Pearl, Nfld.
Even before they’re neurologically capable of true empathy for others, children can respond to genuine behavioural modelling in their parents, agrees Sara Dimerman, a family psychologist based in Thornhill, Ont. Very young children mimic pro-social behaviour, says Dimerman, “but by age seven or eight, the brain becomes wired to truly understand things from the perspectives and feelings of others.”
In the meantime, young children need to see their parents day-in, day-out being kind to their children, to each other, to animals and even insects. They need to see them giving up a seat on the bus to an elderly person or holding a door open for someone. And parents should explain the reasons behind these quotidian kindnesses.
“I taught my children from the age of 18 months not to kill ants and other bugs in the house,” says Lisa Bunnage, a Vancouver-based parenting educator. She would ask her toddlers, “How would you like it if a big giant stepped on you or your mummy or daddy?” She also insisted that her kids treat her kindly and when they didn’t, she called them on it.
Bunnage says crossover role-playing-for instance, bully versus bullied-is a good way to get children to reflect on the feelings of others.
Acts of compassion should be springboards for discussions of caring for others. Dimerman recalls talking to her children after she had saved a man from humiliation in the cafeteria line they were queuing in by helping him pay for his food. When the seven-year-old son of Philippa Sinclair, an Anglican in Toronto, wanted to rush out and spend $100 he had found, she explained that the person who dropped it might be worried and panicking because she didn’t have enough money for the rent or for food for her children. “I made him put up some ‘Found Money’ signs and tour the neighbourhood looking for ‘Lost Money’ signs. He really got into it and felt very good about it,” Sinclair says.
If treated kindly themselves, most children have the capacity to feel for others and respond to their needs. “But if they’re abused or neglected, they’ll focus on their own needs and protecting themselves instead,” Dimerman says.
Dimerman advises parents never to respond to caring behaviour with extrinsic treats. “Allow them to develop internal pride. Ask them how they felt when they helped that person across the street.”
Ronan adds that while adults can model compassionate behaviour to children, children have lessons for their parents. When her younger son was six, he volunteered to wrap up a brand-new birthday present as a Christmas gift for a needy child who, he said, had so much less than he did. “It was message about compassion no adult could ever teach me.”