How to teach compassion – and why

During the past few weeks I have been exploring the idea of compassion, along with many others in the blogosphere, in response to the #1000Speak for Compassion project.

In a TED Talk I shared in a previous post Joan Halifax questioned why, if compassion was so important, didn’t we teach it to children.


That question provided me with a challenge. Indeed I wondered if the question was really fair. The question implied that children were not being taught compassion. And while that assumption may be true for many, it is just as true that many children are being taught to be compassionate – in their homes, in their schools, and in other groups to which they belong. By recognizing the many who do, I in no way wish to indicate that enough is being done. Indeed, much more needs to be done, but let’s not make a sweeping statement that attempts to colour everyone with the same inadequacy in teaching compassion.

I decided to investigate just what ideas were available for teaching children compassion. I had to look no further than one of my blogging friends for evidence that children are being taught compassion through their daily activities. In a number of posts on her own blog Lemon Shark, and in a number of comments on mine, Sarah Brentyn has described practices that she uses to teach her children to be compassionate by involving them in compassionate acts.

Some practices that Sarah recommends for developing compassion include things from as simple as using common courtesies and good manners to volunteering and making personal donations to homeless shelters.

I defy you to read her post 1000 Voices for Compassion without being moved by her generosity and compassion. It tells a beautiful story of compassion in action, a lesson for not only her children, but for all of us.

In her following post entitled Defining Compassion vs. Compassion in Action Sarah described asking her children what the word “compassion” meant. They weren’t sure how to answer her. But when she asked them to describe something compassionate they had no difficulty coming up with examples – from their own lives. Why? Because from the moment they were born Sarah’s children have been living in a compassionate world. They have been treated compassionately and they have not only had compassionate actions modelled for them, they have been involved in those compassionate actions. I congratulate you Sarah, for inspiring us to be compassionate, and for being a role model for us to emulate.

Sarah Brentyn = walk the walk

Looking beyond Sarah’s examples for further suggestions, I came across a number of other articles. Each seemed to reiterate what Sarah had already shared.

In an article for the Huffington Post Signe Whitson, author and child and adolescent therapist, says that “experts agree that fostering compassion in young people is among the best ways to prevent verbal, physical, and emotional aggression” and shares 8 Ways to Teach Compassion to Kids:

  1. Walk the walk

“Show young people that anytime is the right time to engage in acts of service and compassion for others.”

  1. Put the Child on the Receiving End of Compassion

“tending to a child when he is feeling down or under the weather is the best way to teach him how to show compassion to others.”

  1. Talk the Talk

“talk explicitly about acts of compassion . . . communicate its importance as a prized family value”

  1. Volunteer Your Time

“When children become actively involved I acts of showing compassion to others, they learn about his value in a very deep and enduring way”

  1. Care for a Pet

“Children who care for pets learn important values such as responsibility, unconditional love, empathy, and compassion for all living things”

baby bird

  1. Read All About It

“Children’s books are great for providing a window into the experiences of others.”

Whoever you are

  1. Compassion It TM

Wear a Compassion It band as a daily and “personal reminder to act compassionately towards someone else”

  1. Make a Wish

The “Make-a-Wish Foundation provides hope, strength, and joy to children with life-threatening medical conditions . . . can have a truly impactful experience of being able to provide tangible help and joy to a peer”

Other than the references to the specific organizations, Compassion it and Make a Wish Foundation, the suggestions are things that have been discussed before in various posts about compassion, including Sarah’s.

Like Sarah, Whitson believes that it is the accumulation of little everyday actions that make a difference. She states that, as a bullying prevention trainer, she considers “big” solutions — such as policies, procedures, and trainings are trumped each and every day by the seemingly little, yet extraordinarily powerful, acts of compassion and kindness that adults show to the young people in their lives.”

In her article about How to Instill Compassion in Children Marilyn Price-Mitchell agreed about the importance of teaching compassion, saying that  “children who participate in programs that teach kindness, respect, empathy, and compassion and who have families that reinforce those strengths at home develop the muscles they need to become civically-engaged adolescents and adults.”

Price-Mitchell suggested that parents could help teach their children compassion by providing opportunities to practice compassion, by helping children understand and cope with anger, and by teaching  children to self-regulate.

Jane Meredith Adams, in her article Raising a Compassionate Child says that “children have an inborn capacity for compassion … they naturally identify with stuffed animals, other kids, pets, and underdogs. The tricky part is that their empathy must compete with other developmental forces, including limited impulse control – which makes them pull the cat’s tail – and their belief that their needs absolutely must come first – which makes it hard for them to let their cousin push the col fire truck.”

Adams says that teaching compassion is “part of day-to-day life: how you answer your child’s questions, how you solve conflict at the park, how you nudge his or her growing capacity to understand and think about other people.” Adams suggests to Promote sweetness” every day by showing children how to be gentle to others, by speaking to them softly, by rejecting rudeness, and by saying sorry when you have made a mistake. I think Sarah would agree with all of those.

Similar ideas are proposed by  Kim McConnell, and Leticia of techsavvymama who sums it all up nicely with these suggestions:

  • Model the kinds of behaviour we expect
  • Exercise patience
  • Listen to our kids
  • Teach resiliency by providing strategies, and
  • Use quality educational content to reinforce the concept (e.g. books, DVDs and downloadable material)

I’m sure that many of these suggestions are familiar to you through your own personal experiences, either when growing up or as an adult. I think what my exploration of this topic shows me is that, while it may be useful to teach about compassion in schools, children really only learn to be compassionate if they are treated compassionately and have compassion modeled for them, if it is an integral part of their everyday lives.

What do you think?

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post.



35 thoughts on “How to teach compassion – and why

  1. Sherri

    I don’t really know what else to add here Norah, everyone else has already said it so eloquently! Sarah is indeed a wonderful role model to her children because she is indeed walking the walk and not just talking the talk. It is hopeless teaching our children to be kind and caring and compassionate if we ourselves don’t model it in our every day lives, as something that comes naturally in all situations. And we only have a small window of opportunity to teach these things! Life didn’t turn out the way I hoped in so many ways, but I know one thing, I have three beautiful, caring and compassionate kids for which I give them the credit, but I do like to think I had a little something to do with it, even if cramming good manners down their throats 😉 Seriously though, thank you again for another wonderful, informative, beautifully written and researched post Norah, you are a bright, shining star here in blogland and I am so glad I met you 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you Sherri, you are very kind. I am very happy to have met you in blogland too. I’m sure the fact that your children are compassionate and caring has much to do with the model you were/are for them, and I don’t mean just cramming manners down their throats, though there’s nothing wrong and lots good with manners. I mean the strength and compassion that you modeled for them throughout your life. It was not always easy, but you did it! The ripples from your actions will pass through time and generations. What a wonderful legacy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sherri

        Oh Norah, I am greatly moved by your beautiful words, thank you so much. I love your kind, generous and compassionate heart, especially for children ❤
        Have a lovely weekend and see you again here very soon 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Sacha Black

    ooh, interesting topic. I agree though, I find my son learns through seeing us behave as role models, but also because we treat him with compassion and empathy and huge amounts of love. For example we show him that if he hurts one of us by pinching or biting we pretend to cry to show him the consequence of his actions then we have taught him to give mummy or mama a kiss to make it better (he can’t speak yet!) so I figure action is better than words right now until he can learn to say sorry. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bec

    Hi Nor,

    Thanks for the wonderful article. I did find Sarah’s post very moving (thank you Sarah) – and I’m glad there are people like Sarah and her family helping to make the world we share a nicer place!

    I haven’t seen this person in a while since I stopped working in the city, but I used to talk to a nice fellow who sold the Big Issue and lived in quite small quarters after having a bit of a rough life. At Christmas time, he invited into his home people he knew who were sleeping on the streets (and I am sure he did this at other times, too) so that they would have some where to stay. Like you said Nor, and Anne mentioned, children have all the other selfish impulses competing with their natural compassion, but surely this is the case for adults too – making my friend’s decision to share his home so unusual. Which makes it only more important to integrate compassion into all facets of life.

    Something that also popped into my mind was an essay by Linda Tirado which is a really powerful and fascinating read: I think if compassion means learning to think about what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes, then Tirado’s essay is a very good example of this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your lovely comment, Bec. I appreciate your sharing the story of your Big Issue contact with the big heart. It is interesting that those with little are often prepared to give so much.
      Thank you so much for the link to Linda Tirado’s story too. It makes for very sad reading.


    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Christy. I agree. Those small actions can make a big difference, particularly when they are modeled effortlessly as part of everyday life.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sarah Brentyn

    Oh, Norah. I am floored. This is beautiful and I am honored to be such a part of it. ❤ Thank you so very much for this post and for mentioning me specifically as an example. I’m touched by this. Thank you.

    I watched that TedTalk. It did imply that children simply aren’t being taught compassion at all. I agree with you that there are parents and educators who are teaching children to be compassionate but, also, that much more can (and should) be done. The “8 Ways to Teach Compassion to Kids” is spot on—great ideas. I had never heard of COMPASSION IT, though, so I’m thrilled to see that! (And, yes, I do agree with the suggestion to “promote sweetness”.) 🙂

    While my boys go with us to shop and drop off at animal shelters, schools, homeless shelters, et al. to be involved and see things first-hand, I also think having them donate online is wonderful. It’s not as personal but it’s the only way they can help in other parts of the world. These are our favorites:

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Norah Post author

      You are welcome, Sarah. It was wonderful to have your reflections and personal experiences to explain how “easily” teaching children to be compassionate can be fitted into everyday lives.
      I hadn’t heard of Compassion It either. What a wonderful, but simple idea.
      I’m impressed that you also donate online. As you say there are many wonderful organisations around the world that are always worthy of support. Thank you for the links.
      There is a saying that life is a gift. You are certainly making a gift of yours! 🙂


  5. TanGental

    Eventually I come here to such a thoughtful post. I think reading this, Sarah and many other posts from the #1000speak initiative that teaching by example is the best, maybe only really effective way. If you asked my two what was the recurring refrain of their young years it might well be ‘violence is not the answer’ as I tried to engender an understanding of why certain behaviours irritated the other and another way of dealing with aggravation was needed. of course all I’ve done is breed two young people who can chop logic with Aristotle and out think David Hume when it comes to justifying an increase in their allowance or why a new car is such a good idea if it is for their sole use…

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Geoff. Sounds like “all you’ve done” is no small feat! Rather a great contribution to our society. Release those ripples! (preempting my next post!) 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Cultivating Questioners

    Thank you for this post. What a great set of resources you’ve compiled here. Compassion is something that I think students can absorb — or not absorb — based on their experiences in the world, so I am thrilled to see that much of the advice around compassion has to do with modeling. If kids don’t see adults around them modeling compassion, why would or how could they grow it?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for stopping by Nicole. I’m sure the children in your classroom get to see compassion being modeled quite frequently. 🙂


  7. macjam47

    This was a wonderful post Norah. Teaching a child compassion in schools is not part a curriculum, nor should it be, but rather, something that every teacher, parent, neighbor, relative, and so on, should be teaching by example. Sarah clearly does this.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Annecdotist

    I love how you have built on Sarah’s posts in generating this one. I completely agree with your conclusion. I also liked this line that you quoted from one of the sources:
    The tricky part is that their empathy must compete with other developmental forces
    It makes me wonder if parents and educators who don’t manage to teach compassion are sometimes overwhelmed by children’s selfish behaviours and perhaps respond overly harshly (and hoping this approach is more true for the past than the present) but it’s worth acknowledging that children are subjected to all kinds of competing influences and the job is less about punishing the negative ones but maximising the conditions that bring out the positive. I think you’re doing that in a wonderful way in this blog.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you, Anne, for your lovely comment. Sarah’s posts about compassion were easy to build on and expressed wonderful ways of encouraging children to be compassionate in their dealings with others.
      I think children and parents are all subjected to a variety of influences. Making one’s way through the maze and out the other end relatively unscathed, while doing minimal harm to others, is a feat in itself!
      I appreciate your kind words regarding my blog. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people


I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.