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The Season of Teaching Kids Compassion: Empathy and Kindness Start Today

Published on: December 30, 2013

Compassion hands with birdAre kids born kind? Or do we have to teach them?

It’s a fascinating question, one that we are exploring at ParentMap like never before. I’m part of a generation of parents that has examined, analyzed and challenged its parenting methods perhaps more than any other generation of parents.

We ask ourselves if we are attached enough, if we are over-attached, if we are hovering too close as they’re trying to fly, if we are disciplining them gently enough and also firmly enough. We ask ourselves if those grades are good enough to land an attractive college. We ask ourselves if swimming, karate, soccer and violin is too much, and we lay awake wondering what will happen if — horrors — we let our child fall behind her increasingly competitive peers?

But do we ask ourselves about whether we are teaching them to be kind? Whether, if someone is in need, our child will be the person to slow and stop and offer help, or whether they will speed on, stone-faced, to their destination?

Do we ask ourselves what kind of human being we are raising? Will they have empathy? Compassion? Character?

The moments that most quickly bring tears to my eyes are not when my kids bring home a good grade, or create a beautiful work of art or even do well at their violin recital.

I’ve noticed that when I swallow a lump in my throat, it is in the smallest of moments I witness quietly when my kids are not even aware I’m watching: When one daughter stubs her toe and the other throws her arm around her sister and whispers, "It’s OK, Lola, I know you’re going to be alright."

When a beetle is stuck on the sidewalk and my girls crouch down, hands cupped, leaning into one another, to transfer it to safety.

When they notice an indignity — discrimination; someone suffering on the street corner; another child being a bully — and their small but powerfully pure outrage surges. When I see this, I think excitedly, they see it! They see it! They what’s wrong and they care!

That’s the kind of stuff that makes me cry in happiness. And it’s what makes me most hopeful as a guardian of two members of our next generation.

Increasingly, research is telling us what we should all know deep in our hearts, way down beyond the desire for material success and physical health and ego: That compassionate, caring children grown into better, happier, more "successful" adults. And that they can elevate the rest of the community, too.

My daughter’s P.E. teacher teaches this quality as pono: a Hawaiian word commonly rendered as "righteousness."

Author and leading compassion educator Karen Armstrong calls teaching empathy "the key to our survival."

Ooooh, me, me, me! (Picture me raising my hand and jumping out of my seat.) I want my daughters to have that key.

But how do we teach the intangible? How do we measure kindness the way we so obsessively measure standardized math scores?

That is what ParentMap sought to find out when it embarked on a compassion-themed season of reporting and education.

Working on this compassion project at ParentMap, I learned some things. Compassion, it turns out, can spawn — like salmon!

There’s the high-and-mighty research and thinking about how our brains and communities respond to compassion, and that is incredible information to learn. This is the science behind the current thinking on character.

But there are also the everyday paths that we (moms and dads, teachers, siblings, family, mentors) can take to invite kindness, empathy and humanity into our lives, and to impart on our children how important these qualities are.

In the coming month and beyond, beginning today, ParentMap will offer a one-a-day compassion nugget — a tip, activity, discussion-spawning question, video, game, quote, link — that you can easily incorporate into your family’s busy life.

We will post these on our Facebook page, and throughout our Season of Compassion we will add resources, ideas and coverage around the themes of compassion, kindness, empathy and education to our compassion portal.

We would love to hear from our readers, too, about how compassion education works in your family. Feel free to send thoughts, ideas and stories to or to join the conversation on Facebook.

And, as my daughter’s elementary school motto goes: Be safe! Be kind! Be smart! Be pono!

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