Most parents want to raise kids who are empathetic.  But it can be difficult to figure out how to do it.  It’s easy enough to teach a child to ride a bike, or brush her teeth, but how do you teach her to be compassionate?

Children’s differences in “caring behavior” are due in part to inborn temperamental differences.  But how you parent matters.  In fact, researchers have identified specific child-rearing practices that encourage the development of kind, caring behavior. Dr. Ervin Staub, Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, and author of the upcoming book, A Brighter Future: Raising Caring and Nonviolent Children (Oxford University Press), says parents can encourage compassion.  Here’s how:

  • Walk the walk. Kindness begins at home. Let your kids know you understand what they’re feeling. Praise them when they do something thoughtful. Ask their opinions and let them freely express their emotions. Spend time together. Children need to have their own emotional needs met before they can reach out to others.
  • Point out the consequences of your child’s behavior. Even if an unkind action is unintentional, it’s important to explain how his or her hurtful behavior affected the injured party. (Try something along the lines of, “It hurts Jen and makes her sad when you take her toy. How would you feel if someone took your favorite shovel?”) Rather than simply explaining that the behavior is wrong, this approach provides an understanding of how the other person might be feeling. The tone in which you convey this information is vital. Parents who are most effective are those who generally speak lovingly to their kids but use a serious and firm voice when describing the consequences of their child’s unkindness.
  • Focus on the positive, not just the negative.  Don't forget to point out the consequences of your child’s kind behavior. Enlist your children in projects that help others.  Then let them know how what they’re doing makes a difference.  For example, if you and your kids make greeting cards to pass out at a hospital, explain how receiving a visit and a handmade card makes patients feel cared for and lessens their loneliness. Tell your kids how proud you are of any good deeds they do and describe how their actions make a difference in other people’s lives.
  • Stretch your usual boundaries and expand your immediate circle. Talking about tolerance is one thing, showing it is another. Include people from other religions, ethnicities, and backgrounds in your life. Explore different types of foods and holidays beyond your own. And, whenever possible, have your children participate in activities that include a diverse group of kids.
  • Make it part of your regular routine. Caring takes practice! Help your child find opportunities to do good deeds. Not only will reaching out to others make your kids mindful of other people’s needs, it will also make them aware of their power to make a difference.
  • Lead by example. You are your child’s best teacher.  Model caring whenever you get the opportunity. Hold the door for a woman pushing a stroller or let another car into your lane of traffic. When you volunteer, tell your kids why. And even if you don’t have time for a weekly tutoring commitment or a daily volunteer committee position, find ways to do smaller things that matter, like taking food to a neighbor who is sick or babysitting for a friend’s child. The more you exhibit generosity, the more you’ll nourish it in your children.

For more information on Dr. Ervin Staub’s research, see The Psychology of Good and Evil: Why Children, Adults and Groups Help and Harm Others (Cambridge University Press).