My 3-year old demands to know what an earthquake is, why it happens and what will happen to all the babies trapped under the rubble in Haiti. We listen to the news as I drive her to daycare and back everyday and she puts two and two together. She watches us discuss the situation, the organizations that accept donations, the rescue efforts and developments and she wants to know more. Above all, she wants to know if she can help. And how.
On one hand, I feel incredibly proud. I’m moved by the compassion that this little thing shows for people she doesn’t know in a situation she probably doesn’t fully comprehend. I’m glad she wants to help.
On the other hand – I’m terrified. I’m not quite sure how much to tell her and how to nurture her compassion without allowing her wonderful, large, yet delicate heart to break.
Compassion – The Currency That Matters
To tell you the truth – this is exactly what we had hoped for – when my husband and I named our daughter, we chose a name that loosely translates to ‘ Universal Peace.’ It is the first word in our favorite song which is about creating a world of peace and friendship where war is shunned and compassion prevails. Call us dreamers, but, compassion is among the most important values that we hope our daughter upholds. And raising compassionate kids in an exceedingly competitive and materialistic world is proving to be quite a challenge for most parents.
So, it’s heartening to see her express concern and offer to alleviate the pain of children thousands of miles away. Yet, it’s a challenge. How do you talk to a 3 year-old child about death and suffering? And how can you avoid those subjects when she bombards you with questions? Do you just switch off all media and not expose her to any news that’s even remotely disturbing? Which is most news these days. Or do we make up stories about the darker side of life or simply change the subject to something more “child-friendly”?
It’s not easy. Parents don’t always know how to handle questions surrounding tragic situations and we all do the best we can. But the important thing to keep in mind is to give children the opportunity to express their compassion. I think that’s the most significant investment we can make in our children’s future.
If we can somehow identify and nurture that natural instinct in children to sympathize and help – we’ll likely be way better off as a civilization and will be well on our way to creating that elusive ‘better place on earth’ we keep hearing about.
Which is why it’s important to make compassion, tolerance and understanding a part of everyday life.
Compassion as a way of life.
Children mirror the world around them – which usually constitutes their parents. So, of course, it’s essential that they see these qualities in us and in our actions and the examples we set for them everyday. The manner in which we handle world news that doesn’t directly affect us, how we talk about these situations, whether we discuss how to help or donate or sign up to volunteer, whether we’re appreciative of our own lives and what we have – are all factors that shape our child’s thoughts and beliefs.
As I was writing this post, I connected with Lara Ivey who shares her thoughts on being more appreciative and encouraging kids to do the same in her beautiful post, Beyond Blessed. You’ll also find some resources and ideas on helping kids cope with and contribute to such situations.
The other important source of input for children is the printed world. Children’s books are far more powerful and leave a much deeper impact than they are usually given credit for. There’s a lot we can achieve by picking the right books and reading with our children on a regular basis. Reading to kids helps you do something interesting and almost impossible with any other method – teach without preaching. Whether it’s a story about being honest or about kindness, children’s books have a way of weaving the moral and message into the plot so kids don’t zone out when you deliver it. It is this unique characteristic of reading aloud that comes to our rescue in difficult situations such as these as well.
I believe that we can turn to children’s books not just to answer their difficult questions, but even to ask a few of our own and in the process, maybe even learn a little, with them.
How Reading to Your Baby or Child can Help Raise a Compassionate Generation
1. Pick books about other cultures, races, countries, history. Bring home a mix of children’s books on different themes and cultures. The classics, fairy tales and popular books are great. But, why not alternate them with books by authors from other countries or those translated from another language? Encourage your child to learn about children’s lives in other countries. Just becoming aware that there is so much diversity and disparity in the world is the first step towards raising a more compassionate and tolerant generation. The fact that there may not be flush toilets in houses in some countries or that children walk many miles to get to school and back may help put things in perspective, when our kids are extra-demanding or are disappointed with something. At the same time, learning about how wonderfully different those cultures are – their music, dance, literature, architecture, family structure – is both entertaining and educational for young children.
2. Read about those who didn’t live happily ever after. There’s never a good time to introduce children to the harsh realities that we try to protect them from. But, sooner or later, they’re going to learn about the not-so-happy endings of the world. Every once in a while, when you read with your kids, pick books about real people who faced extraordinarily difficult situations or tragic or disappointing events in history. These are not just stories with sad endings, but contain examples of courage, heroism, integrity, patriotism and other great qualities that you want to imbibe in your child. Age appropriateness is an important question, however, in many cases, you can use a book meant for an older reader with a younger child simply by explaining the events in your own words, showing them the pictures and asking them about what they think. Tone down or sugarcoat the details as you see appropriate – only you know how much bare truth your child is ready for.
3. Read the papers. You don’t always have to pick books to read with your kids. How about settling down with a bunch of papers or magazines and spending an afternoon talking about a certain event, situation or country? I’ve even seen some 2 year-olds respond to this kind of interaction – sometimes, they just appreciate the change from looking at illustrations and colorful pictures to real photos and visuals of places and people. They’re excited about reading from “grown-up books”. With older kids, it could turn into a very interesting afternoon project. Together, pick any topic like hurricanes, war or forest fire – anything that’s interesting to them or relevant to the current context – and read to them from different newspapers or feature articles. Not just the science and reasoning behind it but the human interest stories as well. Like the kid who never let go of his baby brother even when he almost drowned or the little girl who got lost while camping and managed to survive alone in the wild until rescue workers found her.
4. Do activities together. Find a country on the globe. Identify flags. Pretend you’re living in another country. A globe and/or a large wall world map is a must for every home with kids. (I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t name some of the countries and capitals that my little nieces and nephews can.) Learning about countries, their locations and history is important for children to understand the nature of our world and how we are constantly evolving as a civilization and how interdependent we all are. Get a good world atlas and read parts of it with your child often. Come up with fun crafts and activities together.
5. Discuss and read about ways you can help. It’s great that the Haiti earthquake has spurred relief efforts and donations from so many of us. In many families, children are stepping up – offering to part with their allowances or piggy bank savings. News stations are brimming with stories of young children raising thousands of dollars for Haiti relief. This is the silver lining to an otherwise horrific and overwhelming situation – we have the opportunity to encourage and witness our children’s compassion and generosity. Making volunteering and donating to charities a regular practice is a great way for a family to engage in an activity together, to bond and to evolve together. So, whenever possible, read to your child about volunteering, non-profit organizations that help various causes, about their efforts and how people can contribute. Read, discuss and act. Even a three year old can be encouraged to give away clothes or toys to a kid who needs them.
Children are naturally compassionate. Underneath their impish smiles and adorable faces, lies an ocean of empathy, love, tenderness and generosity just waiting to be uncovered and utilized. It’s up to us – parents and educators – to recognize, acknowledge and encourage them to express their humane side and to use their gifts for greater causes.