Explaining the concept of homelessness to a child can be a difficult conversation. I clearly recall the discussion my wife and I had with our then 4 year old. “Why is that man sleeping on a bench?”, he innocently asked. We went on to explain to him that not all people have a home to live in and sometimes have to sleep anywhere they can, like benches or parks or sidewalks. Watching his little brain firing away at this idea of “not having” made me realize that I need to be engaging in more of these conversations with him. We started making a concerted effort to have more conversations emphasizing the privileged lifestyle our family is blessed to live and pointing out that many people and children around the world unfortunately do not share the same luxuries. We purchased children’s books that talk about performing service to those in need. We organized play dates geared around picking up trash from local parks and beaches. When we pray each night before dinner there is a reflection on how lucky we are to be able to eat fresh, nourishing food and a message of hope that all the other children around the world ‘go to bed with full bellies’. When rescuing our current dog, we visited animal shelters and talked about all the pets that don’t have homes or families to love them.
Between the second and third years of life, children start to develop an understanding of compassion. They experience it when they are sad and a parent picks them up and nurtures them. They actively start to offer help to others, sharing toys and food. As caregivers reinforce these behaviors their desire to continue it increases. Rather than the traditional and generic “Good job” to reinforce empathy, we prefer to use language around kindness, reflecting how it feels to be kind and how it feels for others to receive kindness, such as “You are so kind”, “Your heart must feel so full”, and “Your friend must feel so happy after getting that hug/card/gift from you.” The more I use this type of feelings-based language the more I hear him start to mimic such language. Now, when we are walking outside and he sees trash on the ground he says, “Oh no, garbage on Mother Earth. She must be so sad. Let’s pick it up.”
We model compassion and kindness in the home through daily interactions, conversations, and family rituals. We create joyful practices around giving such as frequently donating toys that are no longer used and clothing that is no longer worn. Anytime there is a holiday or birthday where toys are received, my children understand that in order to “make space” for every new toy they must take an older toy and give it away to a child in need. These practices can also be tons of fun and provide for great bonding moments for you and your child. Just the other day I miraculously convinced my son to take his mountain of leftover Halloween candy and use it to make cookies for friends. We spent a whole day together chopping candy, baking cookies, creating signs, and writing invitations for his ‘Candy Cookie Drive-Up Bake Sale’. A few days later we set up a table in our driveway, posted the signs, filled a cooler with cookies, and spent three hours serving cookies to his friends drive-thru style outside our home. Not only did I get to spend an amazing two days with my son, and did he get to share the gift of giving cookies to all his friends, but all the money we made during the bake sale was donated to Feed the Children, a charity he personally selected. Through the generous support of our cookie-hungry friends we gratefully were able to raise over 660 meals for hungry children.
As a parent, I believe all of us want our children to grow up to be kind, caring, compassionate adults. I have come to realize we have the power to initiate this process sooner than we think. A preschooler likely won’t fully comprehend complex interpersonal/cultural/social/economic issues like stratification, injustice, oppression, privilege, and inequality; but they do understand fairness- just try to give them one piece of candy while giving everyone else at the table three pieces. They understand what it feels like to not have something when others do. So we start where we can and plant the seeds, watering them daily through meaningful conversation about important topics. And as our children grow so does their inner sense of righteousness, empathy, and compassion for others. A few months following that initial talk about homelessness we were walking through an outdoor business complex. There was a businessman in a very expensive suit, briefcase by his side, laying down on a bench outside one of the buildings enjoying the afternoon sunshine. My son looked up at me with concerned eyes, “Awww, that poor man. He doesn’t have a home. And he doesn’t have any clothes, just that tiny suitcase. We should help him.” All I could do was look back at him and smile, feeling my heart swell with pride.
Do you have a child who would benefit from improving empathy and compassion for others? Click here.