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Parents and the Explicit Instruction of Compassion

Nicole Zdeb | Feb 3, 2014

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Feb 3, 2014

Parents want their children to create lives that are meaningful, productive, and healthy. Scoring well on state tests, developing critical thinking skills, and controlling impulses all play a part in this grand endeavor. Mastering the skill of compassion may also help set your child up for future success.

Compassion involves understanding the emotional states of others and working to alleviate their pain and suffering. Research into compassion has shown that it can improve physical health, extend our lives, foster cooperation, and make individuals more resilient to stress and able to manage fear. “Compassion is more than simply a nice idea. It is not an option — it’s key to our survival” says Karen Armstrong, author of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, in her 2008 Ted Talk Prize acceptance speech in which she called for a Charter of Compassion. Compassion can extend to animals, nature, and importantly, to oneself. Children face peer and performance pressures that can be overwhelming. The ability to treat oneself with compassion is key to building resilience.

All parents can foster compassion in their children. Here are some simple tips to get started.

Have open-ended, exploratory conversations

The best way to begin is through consistent, daily dialogue. Set aside time to talk and ask your child to share what they experienced. This open-ended questioning encourages self-reflection, an important skill for achieving career and college readiness.

Situations that are frightening or stressful might offer a chance to dig a little more deeply. Gently probe to get a sense of how your child conceptualizes a situation. Ask questions that shift the focus to understanding the perspectives and feelings of other people. This is not an exercise in absolving anybody from accountability for their actions; rather it is about understanding that everybody has a story.

Model engagement, not aversion

Engaging with the world begins with seeing the world and all it presents. Show your child that it is okay to face discomfort head-on, rather than averting attention from difficult sights or situations. We cannot always end, heal, or stop the suffering we see, but simply pausing to recognize the suffering of others is important. This kind of “compassionate seeing” builds bridges between the viewer and the viewed. Modeling engagement with the world—the good, bad, and the ugly, helps your child create a sense of connectedness. And there will be ample opportunities to actually do something. When an opportunity to help arises, seize it. Remember, compassion is about action. Sometimes, the compassionate action can be as simple as smiling and making eye contact with someone.

Assume good intentions

Guide your children to assume the good intentions of others. Questions like, “Why do you think x said that?” or “Why might y have reacted like that?” allow children to analyze their preconceptions about others and their behavior, and reprogram themselves if they become aware that their preconceptions are unnecessarily negative. Remind them of times when their own actions might have been misjudged. The point here is that most people are pretty decent and nobody is perfect. Assuming good intentions and a common ground of basic decency helps children develop the social skills required to successfully navigate increasingly complex social lives.

Mentally categorize based on commonalities

While variety may be the spice of life, focusing on what we have in common, even if it seems trivial, can be a powerful tool for getting along with others. Communicating effectively with people of disparate backgrounds and experiences is a necessary life skill, but dealing with difference can be challenging. Guide your child to realize that he or she has something in common with everybody. Commonalities can build bridges so that the differences can be safely explored for their value, beauty, and power.


Practicing compassion toward others, as well as toward animals and the natural world, is deeply rewarding to the individual and society and should be paired with a healthy practice of self-compassion. Self-compassion does not mean letting yourself off easy. It means setting reasonable goals, trying hard, and putting failure into healthy perspective by focusing on growth and effort.

Self-compassion gives an individual the faith in herself to keep getting up, to keep trying, to keep at it. We return to the concept of resilience. Life is challenging; there’s no changing that. The children who can best deal with setbacks, roadblocks, forks in the path, uncertainty, and complex problems will become adults with the foundation on which to build meaningful, productive, and healthy lives.

Interested in learning more? Here are some materials and resources available to support parents. Learning compassion starts at home, and it’s one of the most important lessons that you can teach.

Books for parents to read children:

Compassion is contagious.

About the Author

Nicole Zdeb
NWEA Senior Assessment and Design Specialist