All over the world there are unselfish teenagers and children making sacrifices to help those in need, giving up their time to do volunteer work, and cheerfully going without because their families can’t afford more. There are teens who believe they can live without the latest gadgets and teens who are happy to help their parents around the house. There are teens who appreciate what they have.
Of course, there are other teens who don’t do any of those things. Because they tend to complain and demand more loudly then the admirable ones, they are more noticeable, so that even if they aren’t the majority, they appear to be. These teens feel their life is ruined if they don’t have the newest fashions, their own cars, and servants (or parents) to wait on them.
How do we make sure our children and teens fall into the first group and not the second? This series of articles will explore how to help children appreciate their God-given gifts, to be kinder to those who lack what they have, and to work for what they have. All three of these traits are related and each is necessary to make the others possible. It is helpful to begin when children are young, but it’s never too late to start. We’ll begin with how to start out correctly and then discuss how to undo already-developed attitudes. The first article focuses on compassion and empathy.
Very young children might seem to be completely self-centered and yet even toddlers have been shown to be compassionate. They will cry in sympathy when another child cries. In my church nursery, if a toddler is crying, other children rush over to offer a toy or to comfort the child. This demonstrates even very young children are capable of being taught to be compassionate.
We can encourage this process by praising behavior we want our children to continue. “Thank you for sharing that toy with Marcie. You made her feel better. I’m so proud of you.” We can also teach them what we consider admirable. “Oh, Marcie is crying. Maybe you could bring her a doll and see if that makes her happy.” Children are usually willing to help, but don’t always know how to do so.
It is vital that children understand they have more than others and must be grateful for it. Lecturing them on this is seldom helpful, though. As a family, you need to move outside your own world and into the worlds of others so your children can see firsthand that there are those in need. Take your children to work in food banks and soup kitchens, allowing them to see how much food is given to those people and then compare it to what you buy in two weeks yourself. Make friends with people who are struggling financially so your children will know the poor personally and gain more than a superficial understanding of poverty. Drive through a bad neighborhood so they see how ugly the environment is and discuss how your environment affects your mood, attitude, and motivation. Read carefully chosen books that let them get inside the minds of immigrants, people who are poor, people with disabilities, and others you want them to have empathy for. Teach them to notice when others are sad. Even if you have little yourself you can find others who have even less or who might have a lot but lack the very thing you consider the most important, such as a family or happiness.
Empathy is the key to raising kind and thankful children. It means to be able to see things from another person’s point of view. When we can see the world as another person sees it, we will be kinder to him. When we are aware that others struggle, we can learn to be more grateful for what we have. Empathy can help us to understand the seemingly un-understandable. When we find ourselves in a position to judge others, we can try to stop and view the world as they see it and this will help us to gain a new perspective. Jesus refused to judge the people He encountered. Instead, he stepped in and helped them as needed because He could put Himself in their shoes. Today, He is able to be our Savior and friend because He has empathy for us. We want our children—and ourselves—to stretch toward that level of compassion and empathy.
Demonstrate empathy within your own family as well. When your children are struggling with something, try to withhold the natural desire to start lecturing and instead step back and try to see the situation through their own eyes. Ask questions that will help you understand their perspective and then ask them to verify what you’ve decided. Help them to do the same for others. When they are angry with someone, ask them to pretend they are the other person and argue the situation from that perspective.
If you do creative writing in your home, ask your children to write stories from a perspective other than their own. If you don’t, read books already written to do so. A study was once done using two books by the same author. She had told the same story in both books, but from different perspectives. In one book, she told the story of a child being bullied from his own view of the problem. Then she rewrote the book through the eyes of the bully. Suddenly the bully’s actions took on a different perspective when children understood how he was seeing things and what led to his behavior. However, researchers discovered children most sided with the perspective they heard first, so choose the books you read carefully, to be sure your preferred perspective is offered first. Then offer the other perspective simply to show them other people also have reasons for what they do and they consider their reasons as valid as we consider ours. They don’t have to agree with another point of view or support something they believe to be wrong; they need only to understand it.
“I recall that as a graduate student I wrote a critique of an important political philosopher. It was clear that I disagreed with him. My professor told me that my paper was good, but not good enough. Before you launch into your criticism, she said, you must first present the strongest case for the position you are opposing, one that the philosopher himself could accept. I redid the paper. I still had important differences with the philosopher, but I understood him better, and I saw the strengths and virtues, as well as limitations, of his belief. I learned a lesson that I’ve applied across the spectrum of my life” (Robert S. Wood, “Instruments of the Lord’s Peace,” Ensign, May 2006, 93–95).
If your children have already developed a bad attitude towards those with disabilities, poverty, or differing opinions, you can still help them to become more compassionate. It takes concentrated effort and an understanding that the project must be continued over time. Attitudes are formed over a long period of time and so must be changed over a long period of time. Continue to read, serve, experience, and talk with your children until you begin to see a Christ-like softening of their heart. Read the scriptures with them daily to help them find role models to follow, focusing especially on the teachings of Jesus Christ Himself. Most importantly, make sure your own life is a model your children can follow.
In the next article, we’ll learn how to help children work for what they want and to accept that they cannot have everything.