What Does It Take To Raise Compassionate Kids?

Like many parents, as a mother, I often wonder how we could raise loving and compassionate kids. I have read many books and articles on this topic, offering various strategies and techniques such as role modelling, teaching empathy and kindness, encouraging respect, allowing emotional expression, volunteering, and so forth. While these are all valid and helpful tips, I believe we need to go deeper.

I like to use the oxygen mask analogy: in an emergency, we must put on our own oxygen mask first before attempting to help those around us. Similarly, if we want our children to be compassionate, we must first cultivate loving-kindness and compassion ourselves.

How do children express compassion?

The good news is that we are all born with basic goodness. This means that children are born predisposed to prosocial behaviours when they first come into the world. Many studies have shown that caring behaviours are exhibited even in very young children. For example, scientists have demonstrated that infants as young as six months prefer helpers over hinderers, indicating an innate sense of fairness and compassion.

If compassion and kindness are inborn, what inhibits children from expressing them? An apparent cause is that as children grow older, they learn from adults and the larger society to classify people as deserving of love and compassion vs. those who do not.

A more subtle cause, I believe, is that by positively reinforcing their prosocial behaviours outwardly, we may inadvertently set up an expectation of what constitutes good actions, thereby impeding the natural expression of their essential goodness. Behaving compassionately becomes a goal to obtain approval, praise, or reward; it becomes effortful and contrived rather than a natural manifestation of their true character.

How could we help them express their compassion?

What could we do to allow the basic goodness of children to manifest itself naturally? I believe the key is giving them a direct experience of love and compassion. But what are love and compassion exactly? Love or loving-kindness is the wish for others to be happy, while compassion is the motivation for them to be free from suffering. They are two sides of the same coin—when we love someone, we naturally want them to be free from suffering, and when we are compassionate, we naturally want them to be happy.

Love and compassion are also a sense of warmth, of being embraced and acknowledged, and being seen as who they really are. They are a direct experience—a hug, a kiss, or gentle touch—rather than mere verbal communication; like ice cream, no amount of words can replace or speak to the actual taste of its sweetness. Importantly, love and compassion are unconditional and do not involve any expectations.

The way we express our love toward our children and make them feel loved, in turn, promotes their own ability for kindness and compassion, and this is also backed by science. Oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone,” is crucial in fostering caring motivation, reducing avoidance and fear of novelty, and enhancing acceptance and other-oriented behaviours.

Studies have shown that the expression of the oxytocin receptor gene is regulated by maternal engagement. Babies whose mothers play with them and respond to their needs have more oxytocin receptors. When they become toddlers, they exhibit better emotion regulation, are happier, helpful to their peers, and are less averse to anger and fear.

Unfortunately, love and compassion have often been conflated with self-centred love. For example, we may say: “I will only love you if you love me, or when you meet my expectations, or when you make me look good” (e.g., do your homework, have good grades at school, be a good kid). Or, we might say: “I will only be compassionate if you deserve it” (e.g., you have done your best, you have been ill, you have good reasons).

What do they actually need?

But what children truly need is to be seen, heard, and recognized as to who they really are so that they can express and reach their full potential as unique beings, without us imposing our own, often unconscious and unmet, needs and wants on them.

To do this, we—parents and caregivers—must turn inward and ask: What unmet needs and challenges may come from my childhood upbringing, cultural conditioning, and societal expectations? What brings me joy and sorrow? What is my fear? Who am I really?

Understandably, these are not easy questions to answer, which require us to slow down, pause, and reflect so that we can begin to cultivate more self-awareness, attention stability, emotion management, and self-regulation. And that’s why spending time in nature, taking time off in solitude, or having a meditative practice are all time-honoured ways we can gift to ourselves despite the hustle and bustle of modern living and parenting.

In addition, research has revealed that when we practice loving-kindness meditation that focuses on developing compassion towards oneself and others, including all beings, it activates areas of the brain associated with positive emotions and social bonding. This again indicates an innate potential for compassion that can be further nurtured and developed in adults.

As we become more present, more at ease with ourselves, and more attuned to our needs, we naturally become more understanding, loving, and compassionate toward our children. And from that direct experience of feeling loved and seen, without us having to deliberately model or expect our children to exhibit “good” behaviours, they will naturally become more loving and compassionate. 


Posted on April 30, 2023

A modified version can be found at https://lakeoconeehealth.com/how-to-raise-compassionate-kids/ and at https://splashmags.com/index.php/2023/04/27/how-to-raise-compassionate-kids/

Learn more about cultivating compassion and awareness in the modern world with my books, The Art and Science of Compassion, A Primer and Loving Presence