This originally appeared on Mamamia. Republished here with permission.
Babies are not born racist, homophobic, or elitist.
The world, both online and off, can be a very unkind and unpleasant place. Even as adults, we find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with both the awfulness and unnecessary callousness of it all.
Unfortunately, if we’ve gotten this far, past childhood, through adolescence, and we still have little compassion, then it’s probably fair to say we missed out on the fundamentals when we were younger.
Babies aren’t born racist or homophobic or elitist. They are however, born hungry. At first, hungry for sustenance, but as they grow, they are simply hungry for love, encouragement, and information.
The definition of compassion is “a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Compassion isn’t inherent in all of us, but it can be taught and understood. We, as parents, have a duty to teach our children that we are all born equal and not one of us is more worthy than the other. And we should always do whatever we can do, when possible, to help our fellow man and woman.
As parents, we can teach our children compassion in the following ways:
1. Be a role model
Total cliché, but here it is: Practice what you preach. Don’t tell your child to be courteous, kind, and to look out for his classmate if you’re being a total pretentious ass to the waiter in the coffee shop because you’ve had to wait a few extra minutes for your latte. Your children will mimic and imitate your behavior. Make sure they have something of quality to model themselves on.
I’m not saying you have to be at the local food shelter offloading sausages every Sunday, but I am saying that if your children see you actively turning up to the school fundraisers, or helping out on Christmas Day to feed the homeless, then they are going to understand how good it feels to help out, expecting absolutely nothing in return.
3. Say thank you
Manners are a lost art. Well that’s what my 80-year-old aunt tells me. I have made a concerted effort to make sure my children say thank you when they receive anything. From their breakfast every morning to their teacher every afternoon before they leave the classroom, they need to acknowledge, as we do as adults, that someone has done something for them.
4. Own an animal
Owning a pet teaches a child many things. Mostly, it teaches them about caring for something that isn’t themselves. Because let’s face it, kids are fairly self-involved. A pet, however, is cute and requests nothing in return other than a pet and a cuddle. Oh, and some food. Sadly, they eventually also teach our children about the devastation of loss and death. It’s not pleasant, but is a necessary part of growing up.
5. Encourage open emotions
You can’t understand compassion if you aren’t’ allowed to be free with your own emotions. Encourage your child to cry if something is upsetting them. Just as important, make sure they are free to be jubilant and over-the-top when something amazing happens. We are, as a society, always trying to keep a lid on our emotions, lest we look a bit crazy. Seriously though, life is a series of the great and the truly awful. If, as kids, we get a handle on how to express these emotions, we’ll be better equipped to help out others.
6. Walk a mile in their shoes
Obviously not literally, it’s hardly possible. But I guess the thing is, we all can only associate with what is affecting our own lives, at that precise moment in time. To think outside of this isn’t our natural default. Have the conversation. Discuss immigration, education, health, wealth. Not in such a way as to bore or scare, but in a way that they’ll understand that we all, despite wealth or privilege, should always be entitled to feel safe.
7. Talk about bullies
I think all kids know about bullies. They know about them in an abstract way a lot of the time though. Until it actually happens to them, they don’t understand. Bullies are often in need of a big hug. Well, that’s my belief. As parents we must implore how bad it is to be a bully or even be on the fringe of bullying behavior. How that even if they see it happening and don’t intervene, that they are no better than the bully.
I guess the thing to remember is that compassion and empathy, even when displayed openly at home, can take years to develop naturally. The key is not to make it a thing that children are forced to adopt but more, just simply, the only way they know.
Go home each day and tell your child that you love them. I know this sounds obvious. But if you don’t, the busier you get, it might be the one thing that gets missed each day. Above all, love and acceptance should be what makes our world go around. If we can instill this in our children, we’ve already won half the battle.
Bern is a Gen X, child of the ’80s. Kept busy being a working mother of three children, one with Aspergers, renovating the original money pit and drinking too many coffees in the space of 24 hours. She writes beautiful and amusing posts on her blog, which you can find here http://bernmorley.blogspot.com/.