Written by Emmy R. Kegler
Compassion is a dangerous feeling. It goes beyond kindness, even beyond love. Compassion is feeling sympathy or sadness when seeing someone else who has been hurt, and wanting to do something to help -- which means compassion depends on witnessing the pain and suffering around us. Compassion is a feeling we probably want to prevent our kids from feeling! We don’t always like to face the suffering and pains of the world. But Jesus models for us a way of compassion, a life full of noticing the pain of others and wanting to alleviate it. Teaching our kids how to practice compassion from an early age is crucial in helping them live a life that follows Jesus’ call.
With pre-verbal toddlers and kids, teaching compassion starts with observation. Kids in their early years are figuring out the world around them in relation to themselves. Compassion is about recognizing the needs of others, which can be hard for a toddler who doesn’t want to share! Teaching compassion can be as simple as pointing out other people and their needs as you talk to your child. Help them see the other kids and adults around them, suggest acts of compassion (like sharing or “gentle hands” when playing), and cheer them on when they independently act with compassion.
As kids grow, they often become enraptured with fictional worlds, whether in books, TV shows, or movies. Here, kids can directly witness pain and suffering without the burden of reality or needing to actively do something to address it. As you consume media alongside your kids, help them notice moments that require compassion from fictional characters. How do their favorite characters respond to the needs of others around them? What does that tell us about how we can respond in our own world?
One of the primary ways kids learn is through conflict -- often by disagreeing with their parents (ouch!) or fighting with their siblings and friends. Conflict is an early way for kids to define who they are and what they want, in contrast to what others want. As your kids experience (or even cause!) conflict, help them reflect in compassionate ways: what do they want from the situation? What does the other person want? Is there a time when your kid wanted something similar, and what did it feel like to get it?
At any age, mealtime prayers and conversations have deep impact on how kids learn and grow. Encourage them to pray not just with gratitude for their meal, but for those who go hungry, or for any other people who are sick or in need that your kid might mention. As they share the ups and downs of their day over dinner, ask questions that help them see others around them. Who did they play with that day? How did that person feel? How did your kid leave the world a little better place?
REV. EMMY R. KEGLER is the pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Northeast Minneapolis. She believes deeply in the use of creativity, imagination, and kinetic learning to pass on the faith and the stories
of Scripture. She lives in Saint Paul and enjoys biking, board games, books, beer, and babysitting her fiancée’s dogs.