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.
At school, your child sees small kindnesses (and the opposite) on almost a daily basis, so it's a crucial time to reinforce the importance of thinking about others' feelings.
Plus, many 6- and 7-year-olds are already buzzing about the latest bake sale or other fund-raiser. They get that sometimes you do things for the greater good. To build on that:
Give adult projects a kid spin. Whether you want to visit a hospital or help at the library sale, bring your child and break up projects into small, do-able tasks for her (and stay just an hour or two). Ethan Palmatier, 7, loves to volunteer with his mom, Kelly, at their local food pantry. Even when he was 3, he could follow simple instructions like "Put two boxes of macaroni in here," says Kelly, who founded Compassionatekids.com, a resource for family volunteer opportunities.
Put your child in charge. Talk about the kinds of things your family can donate, and where they'll go. Then name her Queen of Donations, and let her collect the old clothes, glasses, or toys. A great place to start: The Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive (helpstampouthunger.com), on May 12. Letter carriers around the country will pick up canned goods and deliver them to food banks.
Around 9 or so, kids can really appreciate compassion for its own sake: It feels good to be good to others. But don't forget that the praise for being kind that worked so well with your toddler will still make a difference. Maybe even a bigger one. There's a lot of pressure that goes along with being a preteen, and it'll help him to be reminded that the things he does and says are valuable.
Tap into your child's creativity. For her ninth birthday, Palmatier's daughter, Naomi, wanted to help poor people in Mexico (her birth father's home country). "She came up with this idea, so we helped her organize a Mexican-themed birthday party," says her mom. They contacted an organization called Vamos!, which suggested that guests bring kids' vitamins and monetary donations as gifts. If your daughter loves animals, she might enjoy volunteering at a local animal shelter. If your son loves to sing, help his choir find places to share their music.
Join in. Doing something together is one of the best ways to bond with a preteen (for them, it sure beats a heart-to-heart talk). So whether you write letters for Amnesty International (or to the local paper) together, or read to kids at a domestic-violence shelter, you'll be sharing much more than an afternoon.
Amanda L. Freeman, a mom of one, teaches composition at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York City.