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Etymologically, compassion means ‘to suffer together’. From this sharing in suffering comes the motivation to help relieve the suffering of others. By taking action in some way, for example, wishing it were different for someone, sitting with someone who has just received bad news or providing a meal to someone in need, we are less likely to become overwhelmed by seeing the distress of others. As we enhance our ability to really see and feel what is around us, our ability to experience compassion grows. We can reach out, feel care, be kind and help others, not just our loved ones or friends but other living beings in our community and in the world.
Being kind and compassionate are core skills that shape relationships between people, and help to create caring communities.
There is a growing body of research showing that the roots of compassion are biological and appear in very young children and even in our evolutionary cousins the chimpanzee. Our culture and our environment influence these behaviours and continue to build skills throughout life.
Children demonstrate compassion and kindness when they act on feelings of empathy and concern. Children are compassionate and kind when they spontaneously help others, say kind things, help a child who is sick or hurt, and invite others to join in a game. Researchers have demonstrated that empathy can provide a buffer against aggressive and hurtful behaviour.
Compassion and kindness are not limited to acts for other people. In fact, extending kindness to yourself (self-compassion) is considered an important building block to being truly compassionate with others. Another avenue of kindness and compassion is towards our world: the environment, animals and cultural practices as examples.
For a parent, caretaker or teacher, compassion involves being highly attuned to the child's needs, accepting them for the unique persons they are, and acting in ways that are compassionate and caring and support the child.
When children do not feel concern for others, they may engage in hurtful behaviours such as name-calling, taking things from others, hitting, pushing, or teasing. They will not spontaneously offer to help when another person is sick or hurt.
What are the circumstances that lead to problems with the development of compassion, kindness and empathy? Research suggests that harsh, inconsistent and abusive parenting practices may be responsible, in part. In these environments children are inadvertently ‘trained’ to be angry and coercive rather than compassionate, empathetic and kind.
The development of compassion, kindness and empathy is crucial for healthy social and emotional growth in the early years. These positive human qualities help children make and keep friends, understand others’ feelings and behaviours, respond to others’ feelings in an appropriate way, and be emotionally connected with the people around them.
Research also finds that compassion can activate pleasure circuits in the brain, and makes you happy. Compassion lowers stress hormones and strengthens the immune system, helps people feel less vulnerable and lonely, and even reduces risk of heart disease! And when individuals develop compassion and kindness it can lead to more compassionate societies.
Let the following action ideas inspire you to promote being “compassionate and kind.”
The Odd Egg, by Emily Gravett
Children Around the World, by Donata Montanari
The Can Man, by Laura E. Williams
Hooway for Wodney Wat, by Helen Lester
Yoko, by Rosemary Wells
The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio
Mockingbird, by Kathryn Erskine
No Ordinary Day, by Deborah Ellis
Twerp, by Mark Goldblatt
The Absolute Value of Mike, by Kathryn Erskine
For older children and adolescents, initiate conversations about the emotions that are sparked by what they are reading at school or for pleasure, a television program, movie or YouTube video.
Challenge book recommendations from a Children’s Librarian, Vancouver Regional Library.
Be Kind! Demonstrate caring and kindness through your own words and actions.
Practice mindfulness. It has been found to help us feel more compassionate, both toward ourselves and others.
Introduce yourself and/or a child to activities that train your attention to be present in the moment. This can be done in a variety of ways including:
Help a child develop a caring identity by saying, “you are…”
When your child is engaged activities that are caring and kind, seize the opportunity to recognize that behaviour as part of his or her identity:
“You are such a kind and caring child because you did [the behaviour that demonstrated kindness and caring.]”
Perform some Random Acts of Kindness
Foster forgiveness in yourself and in others.
Play and share the Kindness video
We asked children a simple question: What is kindness? Try asking your kids what they think it means to be kind. Show this video with the children in your life and ignite a conversation about kindness!
Focus on Kindness in the Classroom.
Kindness and Compassion can be promoted at all ages and at any grade level. Doug David, a teacher from the Comox Valley School District, shares his approach of a Kindness Activity “through their eyes” using photography and the creativity of young minds. Download the lesson plan here!