As parents, you strive to instill good values in your kids — mind your manners, be a good sport, sharing is caring. Among the most prized of these warm and fuzzy human traits is having compassion for others, but it can be tough to gauge when children are ready to grasp and grow this emotionally complex concept. We asked three experts from Rady Children’s Developmental Services team — Maggie Kershaw, M.S., M.S.W., a behavior specialist at Children’s Care Connection (C3); Brian Fritz, B.C.B.A., a behavior specialist at the Autism Discovery Institute; and Lorri Bauer, M.S., a behavior specialist at C3 and KidSTART Center — to provide some guidance on kicking off the conversation and continuing to nurture compassionate kids through all stages of childhood.

An Early Start

You might be surprised to learn that babies are actually born with empathetic reactions, and that kids between 2 and 3 can already recognize that people have unique feelings. By the time they’re about 4, children start to develop the capability to understand that peers and adults alike have thoughts and emotions that differ from their own. Accordingly, there’s often a fundamental shift in how kids relate to each other at this age, both through social interactions and through play. For instance, 4-year-olds may “adjust [their] play theme to include other children who may have different ideas, rather than demanding that others play only the way [they] want to play,” says Kershaw. “If multiple preschoolers want to ‘be the mom’ in play, they are more likely to take turns … rather than refusing to play at all.”

Around this age, children also become more adept at expressing empathy, as well as having regard for others’ feelings, well-being and futures. “This is a common time for children to begin to recognize differences in abilities, appearances, behaviors and resources more outwardly,” notes Kershaw. “Common examples of this include asking parents and caregivers about why a person needs to use a wheelchair or crutches, about why someone is homeless, or why a person wears a clothing item based on their culture or religious beliefs. How adults respond to a child’s early questions is very important in the child’s development of compassion.”

The Compassion Toolbox

When kids start bringing up such questions, the best course of action for adults is to be open to the conversation, and to provide honest, age-appropriate answers. Even if your child asks about someone in a situation where you’d rather not have an in-depth conversation, calmly redirect their focus but keep their query in mind for later. Once you feel comfortable discussing their thoughts, bring them up — for example, “While we were out earlier, you asked me about the homeless man we saw. Let’s talk about that now.” Address their initial questions, and provide them the opportunity to ask more. This is also a good time to help children have more tactful conversations and avoid hurting others’ feelings.

Compassion can be taught through action as well. “Parents and caregivers can be good models … by involving their family in compassionate acts, such as donating their gently used toys and clothing to a charitable organization, giving food or supplies to organizations that distribute them to people in need, or going to neighborhood festivals or activities that celebrate diversity,” Kershaw suggests. Other methods involve giving children 3 and older a “special job” at home that serves the family as a whole and that isn’t linked to chores or receiving an allowance, or establishing a “family challenge” encouraging each member to do something kind each day. For the latter, Fritz says you can “set aside time as family to review the kind act that each person completed that day. This can help draw attention to the variety of ways, big and small, [that] we can show compassion to each other.”

Through all of this, remember one key fact — your kids are watching your behaviors and applying them to their own interactions. “Children learn compassion by watching adults show interest in the feelings, thoughts and needs of others,” says Kershaw. You can reinforce even further by explaining how caring for others brings good feelings full-circle. Say you and your child encounter an older person who needs help with heavy groceries — assist them, then express, “When I helped that person, it made me happy.”

Inclusivity is Key

Reaching out to peers outside a child’s social circle doesn’t always come naturally, especially in very young children. However, adults can guide kids toward inclusive behavior. “Parents can suggest … the idea of inviting a child to play who may be sitting out. The parent can model how to invite the child to join them and may even take the lead in asking if their child is not comfortable,” Kershaw explains. “The parent could say, ‘It looks like that boy really wants to play, but he needs some help [saying hello]. Maybe we could invite him to make a sandcastle with us.’” Big events like birthday parties also present a great opportunity to instill compassion in kids. Consider inviting your child’s entire class to their celebration, which “can open up the discussion … about being kind to and inclusive of others, even if they are not their ‘friend,’” says Kershaw.

As kids get older, peer pressure becomes more prevalent, and it can be difficult to take the first steps in befriending an ostracized classmate or intervening to stop bullying. “One way to help your child to … be a leader in these settings is to practice different situations that may occur during [their] daily life,” proposes Fritz. “Talk to your child about what [they] could say and practice playing all of the different roles (i.e., the excluded peer, the ‘bully,’ [and] the helper/leader). Talking through … these situations can help a child to feel better prepared if they encounter a situation where they can show compassion … It can be as simple as asking, ‘Are you ok?’ or ‘Can I help you?’ or getting an adult to help.”

As you’re acting things out, you can emphasize that kids can always call on a trusted adult, such as a teacher, for assistance when away from home, and that you’re their number-one resource for talking about what’s going on their lives and collaborating to find solutions to issues they encounter.

Continuing the Conversation

Discussions when your kids are just beginning to understand compassion build great foundations, but should continue and evolve as they mature. Toddlers and preschool-age children can practice things like speaking nicely to others, turn-taking and sharing with peers, as well as taking different perspectives in social scenarios and recognizing when other kids may be feeling left out.

For kids in middle and high school, “their understanding of the complexity of life expands,” says Fritz. Accordingly, “conversations [can] shift from more simple situations that involve the child directly to broader ideas of social justice; morality; and how to be a positive change leader at home, in school and in the community.” Older children can exhibit compassion through acts such as establishing a peer support program at school, setting up an “everyone is welcome” table at lunchtime, or volunteering at events or organizations they feel strongly about.

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With a few simple strategies, you can raise kids whose commitment to compassion will last a lifetime — and make the world a little bit nicer, one act of kindness at a time.