what is it?

The literal definition of compassion is to “suffer with.” Often confused with empathy, the two are related but different: empathy is our ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes, while compassion adds the component of being motivated to help ease someone’s suffering. 

Compassion consists of three areas: noticing, feeling, and responding. Noticing is comprised of sensitivity and non-judgment. Feeling is comprised of empathy, as well as being able to tolerate the distress in oneself that often arises when seeing others suffer. If we feel personal distress in the face of another’s suffering, we may not be able to help. Finally, responding encompasses sympathy (showing concern for another’s suffering), and acting in a caring manner to alleviate their suffering. 

why do we need it?

Compassion is a human capacity that has evolved to fulfill a specific function—the alleviation of our suffering, and the cultivation of the courage needed to face the challenges of life. Compassion is receiving a lot of attention lately, especially in human services and education. Various studies find that compassionate children and adolescents are more likely to engage in positive social behaviors, like sharing or helping others. They’re also less likely to be antisocial and exhibit aggressive behaviors or engage in bullying. Researchers have found that the sooner we learn to empathize, the better for our development. 

Treating oneself and others with compassion is believed to promote wellbeing and improve mental health, The Dalai Lama states that compassion can quite literally transform our minds, and recent neuroimaging and behavioral research has supported this belief. 

what are the goals?

When a child learns compassion, they are able to: 

how do we teach it?

books we read

how to boost it at home

words we use

Children have an innate capacity for compassion. What makes it difficult is that their empathy must compete with other developmental forces, including poor impulse control, as well asa developmentally appropriate egocentric view of the world. The good news is, there are easy ways to teach compassion that don’t necessarily involve family treks to volunteer at the soup kitchen (although those have their place). And you don’t have to lecture your children to instill compassion. It’s more a daily practice of modeling compassion in a multitude of ways—shoveling your neighbor’s driveway, speaking respectfully to the cashier at the grocery store, treating your pets well. 

Young children don’t have a very consistent long-term memory, so you’ll have to repeat your lessons more times than you thought possible. It might seem that if you want to raise a compassionate, caring child, you just have to be a compassionate, caring parent. But that’s not enough. Here are more ways to boost compassion at home: 

Assign chores.

Even older infants can help out by putting away their toys. In almost all First Circle classrooms, they sing the Clean Up song and all the children participate in cleaning up their area and helping others. 

Provide structure.

Even the most nurturing, loving parent-ing requires consistent limits on behavior, or you’ll end up with very self-centered children. Make sure to enforce the limits consistently too to help your child see that her behavior has an impact on others, whether positively or negatively. 

Teach kindness.

Show your child how to be gentle. For little ones, take his hand and show him physically what a gentle touch is. Have her help you bake cookies for a shut-in neighbor. When you see your child being kind to others, label her actions by saying “How kind of you!” You’ll be demonstrating that being kind and thoughtful to others is something your family does. 

Speak caringly.

Let your kindness be a model for how to treat others. Be warm and caring when your child is in pain or doesn’t feel well. If a child’s friend is crying, you can say, “Maybe a hug would be nice.” 

Don?t allow rudeness.

If your fifteen-month-old spits in your face, instead of laughing (no matter how comical the adorable pout on his face), gently but firmly say, “No, you may not spit!” Compassion requires that your child respect others, including you. Don’t allow name-calling, from your child or yourself. 


If you’ve been short-tempered with your child, apologize and ask about her feelings. Model the ability to address your mistakes and teach your child the script for making reparations. 

Use manners.

Good manners are one way to show compassion. Reiterate the need for please and thank you, hello and good-bye, eye contact, and “May I?” 

Practice being considerate.

If you knock something over in the grocery store, pick it up. Get your children in the habit of making cards or a drawing for friends and relatives who could use a kind word: thank-you notes, sympathy cards, get-well wishes. 

Watch your negativity.

As we know, kids are always listening. How we talk on a daily basis about our own family, bosses, neighbors, and friends tells them a lot. 

Monitor media.

If the characters on television are hitting each other or calling each other names, shut off the TV or, at least, talk about what’s going on. Children learn from media, so if you don’t like the way the characters are talking, don’t let your child watch it. 

Read stories.

Reading books together can be a natural way to help your child start to hear stories of kindness and compassion. Check out our book list on the front or search for children’s books about compassion. 

Recognize heroes.

In a world of distressing news, children can worry without us knowing. Shield them from disturbing images as much as possible, but if you are faced with something frightening, point out the helpers—the firefighters, rescue workers, doctors, or volunteers who are there to help us. 

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character education | february


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