Like many parents, I often ask myself: How could we raise loving and compassionate kids? Is compassion innate, and can it be nurtured? Many books and articles have been written about this, offering helpful tips such as being a role model, teaching kids empathy and kindness, etc. However, something seems to be missing.
I’d like to use an analogy: in an emergency, we must put on our own oxygen mask first before trying to help others. Similarly, if we want our children to be compassionate, we must first cultivate loving-kindness and compassion ourselves.
The good news is that we are all born with basic goodness. Many studies (https://www.eva.mpg.de/documents/AAAS/Warneken_Altruistic_Science_2006_1555118.pdf and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3088085/) have shown that caring behaviors are exhibited even in very young children.
For example, scientists have demonstrated that infants as young as six months prefer helpers over hinderers. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5814807_Social_Evaluation_by_Preverbal_Infants This indicates that young children already possess an innate sense of fairness and compassion.
How Do Children Express Compassion?
If compassion and kindness are inborn, what inhibits children from expressing them? An apparent cause is that as children grow older, they learn from adults and cultural norms to classify people into different groups. They begin to categorize some people as deserving of their love and compassion, while discriminating against others.
A more subtle cause is that through positive reinforcement, we may inadvertently set up an expectation of what constitutes good behavior. Acting compassionately becomes a goal for children to obtain approval or reward from their caregivers. Being kind becomes effortful and contrived, impeding the natural expression of their essential goodness.
How Do We Help Them Express Their Compassion?
What could we do to allow their basic goodness to manifest itself naturally? The key is to give them love and compassion, which are two sides of the same coin—when we love them, we are naturally compassionate, wishing them to be free from suffering. And when we are compassionate, we naturally want them to be happy.
Not only that, love and compassion are feelings. They are a felt sense of warmth, of being embraced. They are a direct experience—a hug, a kiss, or gentle touch—rather than mere verbal communication; like ice cream, no amount of words can replace or speak to the actual taste of its sweetness. Importantly, love and compassion are unconditional and do not involve any expectations.
The way we express love toward our children and make them feel loved, in turn, promotes their own ability for kindness and compassion. This is also backed by science. Oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone,” is crucial in fostering caring behaviors. Studies have shown that oxytocin receptor gene expression is regulated by maternal engagement. Babies whose mothers play with them and respond to their needs have more oxytocin receptors.
When they become toddlers, they exhibit better emotion regulation—they are happier, helpful to their peers, and less averse to anger and fear. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/336591660_Epigenetic_dynamics_in_infancy_and_the_impact_of_maternal_engagement
Unfortunately, love and compassion have often been conflated with self-centred love. For example, we may say: “I will only love you if you love me, or when you meet my expectations, or when you make me look good” (e.g., do your homework, have good grades at school, be a good kid). Or, we might say: “I will only be compassionate if you deserve it” (e.g., you have done your best, you have been ill, you have good reasons).
So What Do They Actually Need?
But what children truly need is to be seen and heard as unique human beings. They want to be recognized as who they really are. They need space and support from adults to express and reach their full potential, without us imposing our own unconscious, unmet needs on them.
To do this, parents and caregivers must turn inward and ask: What brings me joy? What causes me sorrow? What unmet needs and challenges may come from my upbringing, cultural conditioning, and societal expectations? What is my fear? Who am I really?
Understandably, these are not easy questions to answer, which ask us to slow down, pause, and reflect. They also require us to cultivate more self-awareness, the ability to stay present, and self-regulation. And that’s why spending time in nature, taking some time off in solitude, or having a meditative practice are all time-honoured ways we can gift to ourselves, despite the hustle and bustle of modern living and parenting.
In addition, research has revealed that when we practice loving-kindness meditation, sending love and compassion towards oneself and others, it activates areas of the brain associated with positive emotions and social bonding.(https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225095500_Functional_Neural_Plasticity_and_Associated_Changes_in_Positive_Affect_After_Compassion_Training)
This again indicates an innate potential for compassion that can be further nurtured as adults.
As we become more present, we naturally become more understanding. And as we are more at ease with ourselves and more attuned to our needs, we become more loving and compassionate toward our children. In this way, without us having to deliberately model or expect our children to exhibit “good” behaviors, they will naturally become more loving and compassionate.
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Dr. Agnes Wong
Dr. Agnes Wong is a pediatric ophthalmologist at The Hospital for Sick Children and a professor at the University of Toronto. She is the author of two recent books: “The Art and Science of Compassion, A Primer. Reflections of a Physician-Chaplain” and “Loving Presence. Visual Meditations of a Woman’s Inner Journey.”