Contributed by Robert V. Taylor, president of the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation and author of A New Way to Be Human
Raising kids to be compassionate and to have empathy is possible.
The good news is that multiple studies say children as young as toddlers have innate feelings of compassion and empathy. Empathy is defined as the ability to imagine walking in the shoes of another. And compassion is the emotional response generated by the suffering of others and then wanting to act on it by helping.
Research also says the empathy, compassion and the resulting kindness they instill are key ingredients to a life of happiness. What we do as adults matters in raising children to further develop those innate responses. Here are five tools that we can each incorporate into our lives.
The choices we make as adults are like tweets. They are powerful shorthand communications to the young people around us. One mother told me about taking her young child to the shelter for homeless women that she volunteered at once a month.
The women of the shelter gravitated to her daughter. “Tell us about your school. Do you have a home to live in? Do you have friends?” they wanted to know. As mother and daughter left the shelter the young girl said, “It’s really cold out, Mom — do all women have a place to sleep?” Her mom believes in truthful answers and so she said, “No, but these women do. That’s why we need places like this to provide a bed until they can get a home.”
Years later this same child orchestrated efforts in a local community to raise money to feed the hungry. A value had been tweeted to her daughter. A child had created a human connection with people she would not ordinarily meet. She was cultivating empathy.
The unique interests of young people invite giving. A father and son have bonded in their mutual love of baseball. Baseball is the passion in this young man’s life and has become an opportunity to give. The son spent a summer volunteering in a baseball camp in the Dominican Republic. Giving of himself, he got to know people he would not ordinarily meet. He could walk in their shoes.
There is no hierarchy in giving. One parent offered this wisdom. “Let your children’s passions drive their giving.” Adults can add context. Holiday celebrations — from Chanukah to Ramadan, to the Festival of Lights and Christmas — invite conversation about what they mean for the happiness that comes from giving. Secular holidays like Labor Day and Martin Luther King Day invite stories about giving of ourselves to something larger than our self-interest.
Service is the conduit through which a child’s empathy leads to acts of compassion. One parent told me that the most important service projects have come from her children’s seemingly “silly” ideas. “Follow the lead of your kids,” she urged.
Her 6-year-old was determined to make peanut butter and honey sandwiches for people living in a homeless tent encampment. Knowing that these particular sandwiches might not be ideal, the mom didn't say that it was a “silly” idea. Instead, they agreed to take food to the camp on a pre-determined future day. In the build-up to it, mom and daughter went shopping for food items that could be used in the camp. On the scheduled delivery day they took the bags of food along with a small platter of peanut butter and honey sandwiches.
A parent listened to the lead and intuition of her child. It became an opportunity to talk about the food that might be most needed but also honored the heartfelt idea behind the sandwiches. Adult awareness and listening to the desire to serve is as illuminating as the orchestrated service projects of a school, faith or community group.
Adults who take time to share their stories can leave a powerful impact on a child's imagination. A young person’s experience can be an equally powerful story. A mom accompanied her nine-year-old daughter on a choir trip to Nicaragua. Arriving a few days before the rest of the group, they were given a tour of a garbage dump where children lived and scavenged for food.
The guide offered this advice about a potentially harrowing experience, “Look for one child in the dump. Concentrate only on that one child. Look into his or her face.” A young boy was among the first to climb onto a newly arrived garbage truck hoping for the first choice of trash from which to eat. As the young girl focused on him he tried to stare her down and finally broke out in a broad smile, waved and ran off.
That night the daughter did not want to write in her Nicaragua journal about the experience but asked her mom to. “Only if you let me read back to you what I’ve heard you say to make sure I’ve it right,” said the mom. Now in college, this young woman never forgets the story of the young boy foraging for food in a garbage dump. It is part of her story about compassion, empathy and kindness.
No matter your own tradition, gleaning from the wisdom of spiritual traditions is a way to invite reflection on choices, service, giving and stories. How does the Buddhist concept of happiness for all relate to the experiences of young people? Is there a meeting point between this and Christian notions of love and compassion, Jewish ideas of repairing the world and Muslim injunctions to give to good works?
Gleaning from the treasure trove of wisdom becomes an opportunity to talk with young people about commonality with people of many traditions. Gleaning invites imagining the life of a child who is Buddhist in Bhutan, Christian in Ethiopia, Jewish in Argentina, Muslim in Indonesia, Sikh in India or a Hindu in London — or those in their school or community.
These five tools are your navigation kit. How we as adults engage with the youth in our orbit matters greatly. It is the difference between standing by helplessly as heartless youth grow up without encouragement to be empathetic and compassionate, or being active participants who help children develop their innate capacity for being empathetic, kind and compassionate people. The studies reveal that our kids will have the added benefit of knowing greater happiness in their lives.
We’re all in this together.