“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Tibetan leader-in-exile, the Dalai Lama, condenses our complex lives into this simple pair of lines — but he has a valid point: If you want to be happy, practice compassion. And if you want your children to grow up to be happy, well, show them how to practice compassion.
Fiona Walker, director of schools and principal of the Julia Gabriel Centre, Singapore, says that regardless of your own precise religion or philosophy of life: “Gratitude, compassion, kindness — they’re universal.”
From your own memories of growing up, lecturing your children “to be compassionate” will only exercise their eye muscles, especially as they grown into the eye-rolling teen years, so you have to be sneaky about teaching these values. Follow our tips to see how.
1. Live it
Yes, you have to set the example. Don’t just zombie your way through life with your nose stuck to your smartphone/tablet, Be kind to your children and your spouse, be compassionate with your siblings and friends. You’re not expected to be perfect (Pfffffffft!) but do let your child see that you are making a choice to lead a compassionate life.
2. Say it
“Thank you, that was kind,” or “Thank you, that was nice!” Sure, it’s “just good manners” but make it a habit to be nice in your daily interactions, says Walker: “Showing appreciation for things they do, when they do something that’s nice for you, be quick to say ‘thank you’ to them.”
3. Share it
This is great for you and your spouse because nobody’s perfect, and you will mess up — and you can show your child that you (and they) can fail and still be forgiven and shown kindness. Bonus: Your child practises failure in a safe situation — which leads to resilience! Sharing compassion can also be when your spouse or child is sick — show your child how to be kind and caring. Think of it this way: You’ll benefit when you need kindness, too.
4. View it
When your kids are older, sneaking “kind, compassionate” reading into their daily lives may not work. You have an ally: TV. Or movies. You’ll need to sit through the show with them to be able to pick out kind or compassionate acts and discuss them with your child, says Walker. “Some TV shows have strong values they highlight. When watching something together say ‘Oh, that’s so nice…’ when someone does something nice or ‘Oh look how happy they all are because she did this…’”
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5. Read it
Every religion has stories about kindness and compassion; beyond those, there are Aesop’s Fables, fairytales (such as Puss in Boots, Beauty and the Beast and many more, in which the kind, compassionate child wins). Especially when your child is younger, read these stories to him or her at bedtime. For slightly older kids, check out titles such as My Secret Bully by Trudy Ludwig (about bullying among peers in school) or The Invisible Boy by the same author (about small acts of kindness).
6. Talk it
Sometimes, kids need things spelled out for them. Says Walker, “Children learn values, what’s important to you is passed on but it needs to be evident to them. The clearest way is by discussing, reiterating, for instance, that it is so important you are kind, rather than only to be right, to be honest, and so on.” She suggests that you share stories of your own day, or things you did when a child. “Tell them why you did what you did — because of what was important. Children won’t pick up strong family values if they don’t have opportunity to share and listen in a family [context].”
7. Practice it
Animals and other children are invaluable in teaching your child kindness. Show your child how to be nice when stroking a docile animal or when playing with a younger child or baby. Saying “Be nice” alone is not enough — sometimes, your child needs to know exactly what to do: Pet gently, play slowly, talk quietly… Any of the above. And praise him or her when they do it with kindness.
8. Work it
Fiona Walker says: “In my own family, what we do is as much as possible we eat dinner together, and share two stars and a wish. It means you talk about your day, giving two things that were really great (the stars) and one wish. The wish could be as simple as ‘I wish we didn’t have to go inside after lunchtime’, or ‘I wish I’d known I was going to have a maths test…’ And it’s fun. They quite like it.” She says that you could end up quite surprised at how often it’s a reflective thought for them. You can also encourage them to take part in charity drives — collecting old clothes and checking them over to make sure they’re wearable, raising funds for the SPCA or for a home, or joining a befriender service.
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