Can You Teach Compassion?

Compassion, empathy, altruism and kindness are positive qualities we intuitively want our children to have, helps a child be successful in life and, research tells us, can be deliberately fostered in families, schools and communities. Teaching these qualities is what the Dalai Lama Center refers to as “Educating the Heart.”
This video of Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl reminds us we can, indeed, teach compassion and kindness through positive relationships, through modeling as well as through opportunities to practice skills with others.  


As the King in Alice in Wonderland says, “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” (Lewis Carrol, 1865).


For children to learn kindness, we need to surround them with compassion and kindness. Nurturant environments are rich with acceptance, tolerance and empathy and we can build these environments in the every day places that children live.
The development of compassion and kindness begins in infancy and evolves, changes and matures over a person’s life. Along the way there are endless opportunities to nurture that development. Every stage of life provides unique opportunities to build relationships and strengthen compassion and kindness “skills.”


Healthy attachment starts here. Attachment is the lasting emotional tie between a baby and one or more other people in his or her life. It is the root of compassion and kindness because children who know they can count on others for emotional support and physical affection are more likely to offer help to others as they grow up. 
  • Respond consistently to fussiness, crying, hunger or discomfort.  Learn to distinguish the baby’s cues. 
  • Give children lots of affection. Start as soon as possible and continue through every stage of development! 

Toddlers & Preschoolers

Kindness in young children is demonstrated through cooperation, sharing and consoling others. Between the ages of 1 and 4, children grow emotionally in many ways and evolve their sense of autonomy and their gradual shift towards understanding the causes and consequences of their feelings.  
  • Permit children to experience a wide range of emotions and use a range of emotion words to help them talk about their experience
  • Be clear and consistent about acceptable and unacceptable behaviours that go along with emotions. “I know you are angry, tell me with your words instead of hitting.”
  • Be open to a child’s offer of help and suggestions for comfort. Allowing them to express their compassion with an offer of a teddy bear, for example, to an adult who seems tired or sick is a golden moment for them to receive the emotional rewards of kindness.
  • Try to be calm when your emotions are triggered. Show your child how you can process their feelings and offer a rational explanation for your behaviours instead of demonstrating strong reactions in the form of spanking, yelling and punishing.

School-age Children

A child in elementary school is now able to take the perspective of another person and come up with ideas to alleviate someone’s distress.  They are also ready to think and act more broadly on complex social issues such as homelessness, hunger or discrimination.
  • Especially when a child hurts another, encourage them to imagine how he or she would feel in the victims place.
  • Talk about emotions, your own as well as the child’s. Naming emotion builds a feeling vocabulary. 
  • Read book to explore both positive and negative examples of social interactions through the characters of a books.

Pre-teens and Adolescents

Kindness in this stage of life may boost happiness and popularity and reduce the chances of being bullied.  Benefits are even biological!
Dr. Schonert-Reichl conducted a research project with106 high school students who participated in a 10 week study. Half volunteered one hour per week with elementary school students, the other half did not volunteer.
Using questionnaires and a medical examination, researches found that students who volunteered actually had lower levels of cholesterol and inflammation after the study. Those who did not volunteer saw no changes.
  • Support teens by coaching and guiding them through the steps to help others 
  • Help teens identify and acknowledge how good it feels to be compassionate
  • Talk with teens about what they have in common with others (even when there are many differences).


Kindness in adults (they describe as spending money on others) is linked to greater increases in a person’s happiness as compared to spending on oneself.
  • Volunteer in an area of your personal interest and keep an eye open for opportunities to volunteer as a family.
  • BE compassionate and kind.  Children will notice and imitate your behaviours and actions.
  • Practice “self compassion”.  Treat yourself with the same care we would a loved one.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama said it best. For every age and every stage, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” 


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