First and foremost, raising children in an anti-bias, anti-oppression home—one that acknowledges the realities of racism, the oppression of poverty, the danger of homophobia, and the error of making assumptions about ability—starts with the language we use and the environment we create in the home. We can teach our children to respect, appreciate, and affirm people who are different from us. We can actively work to not perpetuate harmful assumptions about others when we express our ideas. And we can encourage our children to avoid teasing and name-calling as well as to stand up for victims and speak out when they recognize oppression in any form.
The true development of compassion, however, is another matter. The nature of children (particularly young ones) is inherently selfish, because they have an egocentric view of the world. This is why a child can give a beloved toy to a friend without a second thought and then in the next few minutes snatch it right out of their hands. Their brains literally do not comprehend that others have a perspective other than their own.
Yet children need to understand that being compassionate can help them create a better world. Beyond modeling this value within our families, developing a family tradition of community service—such as engaging in social justice projects together—communicates that compassion is a family value.
Volunteering together to work a Saturday afternoon shift at a soup kitchen; gathering up groceries to give to the local food pantry; or participating in a walk, bike ride, or fun-run for an important cause can be family enrichment activities—especially when there is talk of why it is important to help out the people who will benefit from the family’s efforts. Even the act of praying together for the well-being of others, sending a healing white light to those who are hurting, or intentionally holding people in our thoughts can go a long way toward nurturing compassion in our children.
Finally, role-playing can be an effective way of promoting justice through compassion. Asking children to act out a story or particular situation can help them come to an understanding of others’ thoughts and feelings that is just not possible otherwise. This method turns the game of imagination into an active tool for learning about justice and compassion.
Photograph above: Intergenerational service project at the 2010 General Assembly (© Nancy Pierce/UUA)
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).