Growing Compassion: Raising Kids Who Respond With Care

“But who is going to help her?” Jacob asked. Jacob was a seven-year-old we had just met on the playground. He, along with several other kids including one of my own, had been playing the tag game “Sandman” on the play structure. Suddenly one of the kids tried to take a shortcut off the side of the ladder and fell to the ground. A worried Jacob watched as she got up quickly and ran towards the park building.  

It was clear that Jacob was not convinced that she was okay.  “It makes sense that you are concerned!” I said to him. “That was a big fall. Should we go in and check to make sure that she’s okay?” He quickly agreed and we headed to the building. 

“I also want to tell her she can come back and play if she wants to,” Jacob told me. He was obviously relieved to be taking action. 

It’s easy to take these kinds of compassionate micro-interactions for granted. In this case, Jacob’s furrowed eyebrows had quickly relaxed once he learned that his new friend was fine.  Within five minutes the crew of kids had resumed their game as if nothing had happened. Yet compassionate actions like this are no small thing. They have enormous significance – and not just for Jacob and the child who fell. Compassion helps us all feel better, live longer, and build stronger relationships. It can also pave the way for a more just and equitable world.

Two showing each other compassion and putting arms around each other sitting side by side

Compassion vs. Empathy

The Latin root of the word compassion is compassio, which translates to “suffering with” or “to suffer together.” While many people use the words compassion and empathy interchangeably they actually describe distinct emotional experiences. Empathy describes our ability to take someone else’s perspective or to feel the emotions of someone else. Compassion compels us to want to take action to help alleviate someone’s suffering. Scientists who study compassion explain that it has at least three core components:

Noticing: Noticing a person’s suffering either cognitively or emotionally. Self-awareness and other-awareness help us notice that other people’s emotional states and experiences are different from our own.

Feeling: Reacting emotionally to someone’s suffering, either because we can imagine what someone might be feeling or because we understand suffering from that person’s perspective. This is what we mean by empathy.

Responding: A desire to help or to ease someone’s suffering.

Compassion helps us all feel better, live longer, and build stronger relationships. Our bodies and brains reward us for feeling compassionate.

Compassion is Hardwired and Learned

Research on compassion contradicts the notion that human beings are, first and foremost, selfish and competitive. While we are capable of cruelty, study after study demonstrates that compassion is deeply rooted in our biology. Human beings are wired to care about and help each other.

Children in their first days of life will show signs of distress when they hear other babies cry. Even very young children demonstrate all kinds of helping behaviors to meet the emotional needs of others. As children get older, their cognition catches up to their emotions.  The development of “theory of mind” by ages four or five allows children to start considering someone else’s unique perspective. Over time, we are better able to understand that your experience may not be the same as my experience. This allows us to empathize with someone’s suffering even if it is different from our own. 

While empathy can lead to compassionate action, this isn’t always the case. It depends upon experience, skills, context, personal cost, and group norms. In addition, throughout childhood and adolescence, emotional regulation skills are still growing and developing. This helps explain why we can have amazing ethical and moral conversations with seven-year-olds and then watch them laugh uncomfortably and walk away when their friend gets hurt on the playground. Similarly, adolescents might feign indifference or make ill-timed jokes in an attempt to manage overwhelming feelings. 

My own six-year-old had been playing Sandman and was right next to the girl who took the tumble. It was clear from his expression that he was concerned. In fact, he even winced when his playmate hit the sand. That said, he was so overwhelmed by her cries and, I learned later, his worry that he was at fault, that he couldn’t channel his empathy into compassionate action. Instead, he jumped onto the monkey bars – eager for a distraction and relief from uncomfortable feelings. This, of course, does not mean that he is cold or calloused. Instead, it is a reminder that knowing how to handle big feelings and translate them into helping behaviors that serve another person are complex tasks. They take both maturation and practice.

At our best, compassion is rooted in mutual aid and community, not pity and saviorism. Helpful compassionate action grows from the understanding that our health and wellbeing are inextricably linked.

What Does Compassion Look Like?

Compassionate action does not have to involve grand gestures or heroic responses. Indeed, we know from other research that rushing in to “fix” someone’s problems can amplify distress or create more harm if we haven’t paused long enough to listen and consider what is needed. Remember, awareness and empathy are essential ingredients for compassion. Compassion helps us slow down, access our curiosity, and turn towards others with care. Compassionate actions can be as simple as sitting with someone or offering a hug. They can be as big as plugging into large-scale movements to alleviate systemic suffering related to racism or climate change. At our best, compassion is rooted in mutual aid and community, not pity and saviorism. Helpful compassionate action grows from the understanding that our health and wellbeing are inextricably linked. 

The good news is that compassion tends to fuel more compassion. This is partly because it feels good to care for other people. Compassion activates the vagal nerve, which calms our body. Researcher Dacher Keltner notes that when children and adults alike experience compassion, “Their heart rate goes down from baseline levels, which prepares them not to fight or flee, but to approach and soothe.” Levels of the “bonding hormone” oxytocin also increase, and regions of the brain associated with pleasure fire. Our bodies and brains reward us for feeling compassionate. 

Compassion is rooted in the understanding of common humanity. Identifying ways that people have shown up for, comforted, and supported us in times of need can help us feel more compassionate to others.

Raising Compassionate Kids

Compassion is a work-in-progress for children and teens. Inconsistency is normal. It isn’t something that we can turn on or off like a switch. It isn’t something that we can instruct kids to do and we can’t skip over empathy to get there. That said, we can focus on cultivating the ingredients for compassion from early childhood through adulthood. 

  • Start with self-compassion. It’s hard to extend compassion to others when we don’t offer it to ourselves. Self-compassion means being curious about our own emotions and treating ourselves like we would a good friend, especially when we are struggling.
  • Model compassionate behavior. Children learn more from watching us than anything else. Unfortunately, many adults are acting from a place of self-protection instead of compassion. We can counter these examples by demonstrating curiosity and compassion in everyday interactions.
  • Talk about receiving compassion and support. Compassion is rooted in the understanding of common humanity. Identifying ways that people have shown up for, comforted, and supported us in times of need can help us feel more compassionate to others.
  • Lose the commands. It’s tempting to try to force our kids to act compassionately.  But inviting reflection is more conducive to compassion than delivering commands. Instead of, “Be nice to her!” Try, “Her tears tell me that she is feeling sad. Let’s check in and ask her if there is anything we can do to help. Can you think of anything you could offer her?”
  • Practice skills. We can and should talk about compassion in conversations and through stories and media. But role-playing, practicing, and rehearsing compassionate action builds neural connections and confidence. Active skill building makes it more likely that in moments of stress and strain, our kids are ready to notice, feel, and respond guided by compassion. With young children, we can role-play. With teens, we can ground our conversations in the real-life scenarios they are likely to encounter online and offline. 
  • Talk about boundaries. Compassion isn’t about easing the suffering of others at the expense of our own physical and mental health. It also isn’t about offering to help people who consistently hurt us. Teaching children and teens about compassionate boundaries is essential. For example, for a teen struggling to support a friend, it is okay to say, “I am here for you and you deserve support from a therapist or other adult. This is too much for me to do alone.” 
  • Tackle the toxins to empathy and compassion. We can fall into toxic traps that erode empathy and compassion, especially when we are stressed or feel threatened. These include scapegoating, blaming, avoidance, dehumanization, and superiority. Noticing these protective stances protects against them. Avoidance is especially tempting for parents of young children. In the case of racism, for example, white parents often adopt a “colorblind” approach in hopes of raising universally compassionate kids. But learning about things like racism, ableism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other -isms early in life makes it more likely that kids notice and respond to unfair and unjust treatment of themselves or others. Not talking about these things doesn’t make them go away, it just makes kids less prepared to recognize and respond to the suffering that systems of oppression cause for everyone.
  • Take the long view. Developing empathy and building skills for compassionate action take time and practice. We don’t want to ignore patterns of cruel behavior over time. But we also don’t want to jump to quick judgements about our children’s capacity for compassion. Age, neurodiversity, experience, and context all shape compassionate behaviors. Parenting is hard. Plant seeds, practice skills, and offer yourself plenty of self-compassion along the way.