While rummaging through an old box, my daughter, Claire, came across the stuffed bear I'd had when I was her age, a deeply loved creature named Teddy. "How come Teddy has no fur?" she asked. "Why doesn't she have eyes?" I explained that my cousin's dog had chewed up Teddy when I was a kid. She was aghast.
Gravely, she kissed Teddy's empty eye sockets. Somberly, she reported to her twin brother, Drew, what had happened. "We've got to fix her," she said.
As it turns out, children have an inborn capacity for compassion. Small in stature themselves, they naturally identify with stuffed animals, other kids, pets, and underdogs. The tricky part is that their empathy must compete with other developmental forces, including limited impulse control—which makes them pull the cat's tail—and their belief that their needs absolutely must come first—which makes it hard for them to let their cousin push the cool fire truck.
But with so much hatred and turmoil in the world today, it seems more important than ever to raise kids who can understand and be kind to other people. Teaching this doesn't mean lectures or visits to soup kitchens. It's part of day-to-day life: how you answer your child's questions, how you solve conflict at the park, how you nudge his or her growing capacity to understand and think about other people. Temperament of course plays a role—some kids are naturally more tuned in to other people's feelings and difficulties, while others are a bit oblivious. Either way, you have influence in fostering your child's ability to empathize. Age by age, here's how to do so in small, daily doses:
Teaching your child ways to treat things with care helps him develop the understanding that actions have consequences.
Show how to be gentle. Your child wants to be friendly but ends up grabbing the baby roughly? Demonstrate another way. "I say, 'We use our hands to give love,'" says Kimberly Mazone of Dresden, Maine, mother of 4-year-old Sienna and 3-month-old Lucca. "'You're being a little bit rough. Let's be gentle. Let's show our love with our hands.'" You can actually take his hand and show him physically what a gentle touch is.
Speak softly. Your kindness will be a role model for how to treat others. When your child's in pain, be warm and caring. "It's all about the tone in your voice," says Emily Mihalchik, a mom of 2-year-old Sam and director of the Johnnie Appleseed Preschool, in Lawrence, Kansas. If a child's friend is crying, "I say, 'Maybe a hug would be nice,'" says Mihalchik. Young toddlers don't have a very consistent long-term memory, so you'll have to repeat your lessons more times than you thought possible.
Reject rudeness. "I see fifteen-month-olds who do things like spit into their parents' faces, and the parents laugh," says Susan Jensen, a mom of two and director of Children's Nook preschool, in North Charleston, South Carolina. This will not do. Compassion requires that your child respect others, including you. Gently but firmly, say "No, you may not spit!" In the same loving but no-nonsense manner, remove his little feet from the table and unlock his fist from your hair.
Say "I'm sorry." If you've been short-tempered with your child, apologize to him. All parents make mistakes. It's how you address them afterward that makes the difference. He'll learn that everyone, even Mom, admits it when she's wrong.
Jane Meredith Adams writes for the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco magazine and Health.