No one wants to raise a spoiled brat. We want our kids to care about others and grow up to appreciate and help people. Of course, this can seem rather daunting when even sharing toys is a battle of wills. You can say "Be nice" (or "Eat your broccoli—children in Ethiopia are starving," as our moms used to) and you might make an impression. Or you can show your child how to really put his growing empathy to work:
Babies and toddlers
Teach compassion to a baby? You can—and you probably already are. The best way to do it is to shower her with love and affection. Children need to develop a sense of being cared for and loved before they're able to care for and love others, says Elizabeth Berger, M.D., a child psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids With Character: Developing Trust and Personal Integrity in Children.
It's hard to pinpoint when the capacity for compassion develops, but even babies as young as 6 months can be sensitive to other people's feelings. Witness your baby's tears when your voice is angry and the giggles when you're smiling and happy.
By the time kids are toddlers, they start acting on those feelings. You might see a 2-year-old try to feed or soothe you or a doll. Yes, she's imitating you, but that's how empathy starts, say experts. While this compassion is genuine, it's also fleeting: Your toddler might be kind to her baby brother when he falls down, but if Daddy offers her a cookie the next moment, she'll be gone in a flash.
To encourage compassionate behavior, praise her small triumphs. You'll be building positive associations with kindness, says Lea deFrancisci, M.D., a child-psychiatry resident at the NYU Child Study Center. Some ways to nurture compassion:
Take your child with you. Meredith Broussard, a Philadelphia mom, brings along her 20-month-old son, Scott, when she visits a friend in a retirement community. "He loves to run around and say hello, and it brightens everyone's day," she says. If that's too much pressure, try to include your child on a visit with someone you know who's homebound. Share smaller kindnesses, too: Say hello to new people at church, or thank someone you don't normally, like the mail carrier. It all adds up.
Let her help. Many local parks, beaches, and trails need volunteers for cleanup, and running around picking up (or pointing out) trash might be just the thing for an energetic little kid. Next time you buy a get-well card or order flowers, have her choose a color. She'll love helping you and will soon learn that she's helping others, too.
Kids this age are pretty impressionable. They repeat what Dora and Bob have to say ad nauseam, so look for shows and books that feature stories about helping others. How Kind!, by Mary Murphy, really stuck with Charlie Norton, 4, of Westford, Massachusetts. The book focuses on being kind, instead of "bad" or "good," and Charlie likes to point out his own little kindnesses (like sharing snacks) to his mom. And remember that almost nothing you say is lost on a kid this age. So express your own compassion—out loud.
As preschoolers get more independent, their ability to show empathy grows. Your child realizes that other people have feelings, and he might take their troubles seriously. Your job is to help him figure out what to do in response:
Start local. A preschooler's world is still small, so your child will best relate to helping someone he knows, says Dr. Berger. Bake and deliver cupcakes to a neighbor who's had surgery; give your child a task like mixing the batter. Offer to rake the leaves on an elderly neighbor's lawn. Next time your child starts on an art project, think of someone he knows who might like his masterpiece.
Then go (sort of) global. After helping people he knows, the next step is for your child to help someone like him: a kid. You may know about sponsoring a child at Christmas, but you can do it year-round. Find a toy-drop location through Toys for Tots (toysfortots.org), or call a homeless shelter for help locating families you can then include on shopping trips for your own family.
And what child doesn't understand birthdays? Put together a gift bag for Cheerful Givers (cheerfulgivers.org); they go to kids in shelters.