I remember, in vivid detail, lying on the couch, silently crying after having suffered my second miscarriage. My despair was momentarily halted when my then eighteen- month-old son came over, rubbed my arm, and asked, “Mommy, you okay?” with an imploring look in his eyes. I was surprised by my toddler’s reaction to my outpouring of emotion, and experienced an unbelievable sense of guilt because my son had seen me in such a state.
In retrospect, I’m proud that my son had mastered the concepts of empathy and healing touch at such a young age. The simple act of him reaching his hand out to rub my arm illustrated his grasp of compassion and comforting others. That would not be the last time he would see me cry, and it was the first of many times he would tell me, “It’s okay, Mommy”.
In an age where so much ‘connection’ happens virtually, and society’s pace moves at warp speed, raising our children to meaningfully connect is more important than ever. Each day we, as parents, are presented with opportunities to teach our children to become empathetic and compassionate individuals.
It goes without saying that physically being present in our children’s lives provides them with a sense of security and structure. In an age where technology makes it possible for people to constantly be ‘plugged in’ and distracted, it is incredibly important to be mentally and emotionally present for our children. When we take time away from our gadgets to focus on our children, we’re not only teaching them electronics etiquette, but we’re also showing them that they’re worthy of our full attention.
As a parent who works from home, actively using the internet and social media for my career, I struggle with disconnecting. I find that planning my days allows me to be present for my son. By allotting time in the early hours of the morning, during naptime, and after his bedtime to work, I’m able to focus on my son throughout the day. There are times when my workload or deadlines necessitate me breaking those set hours, but I do my best to adhere to them. I’ve also established “sacred” (read: no phone) times; I don’t answer or check my phone during dinner or family outings, and carve out one hour a day where all electronics are put away. I will often take my son to the playground or for a short hike during those gadget-free hours; it’s surprising how great it feels to unplug from media and connect, with no distractions, with my son.
TREAT OTHERS WITH RESPECT
Young children mimic the behavior they see, so it stands to reason that they will pick up your good [and bad] habits. If you want to raise a compassionate child, you must model compassion for them.
Our children are observing our every action and interaction. Treating others with respect demonstrates to our children that all people are important and deserve to be treated in a kindly manner. Treat your children with respect as well. It can be as simple as giving them a five minute warning before concluding a fun activity, or including them in a conversation about the schedule for the day.
MODEL BEHAVIORS IN EVERYDAY LIFE
If we treat each situation and interaction as a teaching tool, we are able to easily teach our children to be[come] compassionate individuals.
A simple trip to the store, or dining out, provides multiple opportunities for our children to positively interact with others. Outings are great ways to practice manners with people other than family members, thanking the store clerk, or using please to ask for a drink; these are simple practices that pave the way for lifelong behaviors.
Often difficult to tap into during those trying toddler years, being patient with our children teaches them patience and understanding of others. Toddlers, especially, are learning how to use language to relate to others, and are continually experimenting and testing their boundaries (physically, mentally, and emotionally) in navigating the world around them. Be patient, and correct your child when they’ve overstepped their boundaries; offering an explanation for “no” when correctable situations arise (e.g. we don’t throw toys because someone can get hurt, we don’t hit because that hurts others, etc.)
Presenting our children with opportunities to contribute or help around the house teaches them responsibility. For older children, this can include a chore list, visibly presenting them with a list of their household contributions/duties. For younger children, activities such as sorting socks from the laundry, or putting toys away gives them a valuable sense of contribution, partnership, and can help instill a sense of respect for possessions (e.g. taking care of toys).
Be sure to acknowledge behaviors and emotions your child exhibits, models, or expresses. At two years old, my son overuses the term, “I’m sorry”. Each time he says, “Sorry, mommy,” I explore why he’s apologizing to me. “I’m sad,” or “I’m happy,” are terms he’s beginning to express as well. I take each opportunity to probe and discuss why he’s making an outward expression of those feelings.
When my son found me crying last winter, I explained that I was sad, but that I was also okay. He surprised me with his empathy, and I was quick to reassure him that mommy was okay. Remember, our children are constantly exploring and learning about the world around them; teaching them to relate to others in positive ways is shaping them into caring, compassionate individuals.
Curious to learn more about children and empathy? The Brain Flux has an excellent article about the correlation between empathy and popularity (for the right reasons) in children.