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So how do parents teach compassion to their children in a world full of violence, cruelty and hatred?
“By showing it” is the answer many child care experts give.
According to a study by psychologists Dr. E. Gil Clary and Dr. Jude Miller, there are two kinds of parental role modeling that teach children to be caring: Kindness to others and kindness to the child.
“If you are consistently caring and compassionate, it’s more likely that your children will be, too,” an article on the American Psychological Association Web site states. “Children watch their parents, and other adults, for clues on how to behave.”
It’s important to remember that actions speak louder than words, and children will pick up more on what a parent does than what a parent says to do.
While volunteering or participating in church or mission activities are ways a child can learn compassion, the acts don’t have to be grand in scale. Small acts of kindness, such as doing a favor for a neighbor, taking a stray animal to a shelter or assisting a classmate being teased or bullied by others are just as important in teaching compassion to children, the experts say.
Research has shown that children can show signs of empathy and concern from a very early age.
Dr. Caron Goode, founder of the Academy for Coaching Parents International, suggests that parents start at the very beginning of a child’s life, when they are a baby.
“Ensure that you express and show a lot of love and affection towards your child when he is a baby. They can feel the vibes and become soothed or agitated by their bonding with their parent,” Goode said in an online article.
In the same article, Alice Sterling Honig, a professor of child development at Syracuse University, said infants need that close bond with their parents.
“Without that attachment, babies will later have difficulty showing love and affection,” Honig said. “The early months of infancy are crucial. When you have a relationship that’s loving and secure with an adult, then you are probably going to be able to give to others in life the way you were given to.”
There’s help out there for parents interested in raising caring children. Compassionate Kids, an international nonprofit organization, is dedicated to helping teach children compassion towards the Earth, people and animals. Their Web site, www.compassionatekids.com, defines compassion as “deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.” The site goes on to state that compassion is more that just the definition — it’s an attitude, a philosophy, a way of life.
“If a child learns compassion, all other scholarly pursuits are merely details in the scheme of life,” the site states.
The staff and administration at Central Presbyterian Church Child Development felt that the pupils could benefit from a compassion series, so assistant director Kaye Robertson implemented the Character in Action series this year. Robertson said through animal characters, the curriculum teaches preschoolers — ages 3, 4 and 5 — character traits such as respect, caring, compassion, responsibility, courage, honesty, patience and fairness.
“Christopher Cat talks about character — when you know what to do and do it, even when no one is looking,” explained Robertson. “Georgie Giraffe talked about respect, showing others that you value both them and their belongings.”
Debbie Malone, Central Presbyterian director, said she thought the series would be helpful to introduce the preschoolers to some old-fashioned morals and values.
“If we have integrity and respect, we are going to treat others with compassion,” said Malone. “We are targeting the old values by doing that series. I think we need to get back to some of the basics with our children that we’ve strayed away from ... and instill those in our children.”
Kathy Barton, a fourth-grade teacher from Velma, Okla., has designed a two-week curriculum about teaching compassion via helping handicapped pets. Through the manual, “How Do You Teach Compassion? You Show It,” which can be downloaded at www.HandicappedPets.com, Barton said students will gain an awareness and acceptance of animals with special needs and will be empowered to make a difference in their lives.
“The children learn a lesson that is invaluable, that what they do in response to suffering matters,” Barton said. “(They learn) that everyone — even a young child — can make a difference. They learn the value of a life and that another’s injury or ill fortune can be an opportunity to lend a hand.
“If they can do that for a dog or cat, think of what it can mean for the world,” Barton said.