As a child, I remember fighting with my siblings to get my fair share. In those times, one of my father’s favorite sayings was “It’s not all about you.” While often said with force and intended to end the argument, the underlying message remains. Life is not about self or what you want or what makes you happy. Life is infinitely richer than the narrow framework of self. It involves interacting with and caring for other people.
At the early stages of a child’s life, the parents make a choice to pander to every felt need of that child, or at some point communicate to him that parents are people too. When a toddler is told “no” he begins to realize he is not the center of the universe and is not entitled to have all his desires met. He learns some actions are unsafe and others are not kind.
Compassion is also taught in parental response to their children in times of pain, sadness, or fear. An attentive parent learns to distinguish the types of cries. A child needs to know that her parent accepts her feelings before a solution can be sought. Everyone, even at a young age, wants to be heard, not just fixed. When children experience compassion, they can start to express compassion.
The first time my oldest child put her arm around a friend who had been crying, my heart melted. She had seen the pain in someone else, and wanted to do something about it. It wasn’t something I had taught her the same way I taught colors, letters, or shapes. She learned it by experience and the modeling of others.
Every time a parent responds to a friend in need, collects items for a food or clothing drive, or volunteers his or her time, the children will accept it as appropriate and responsible behavior. The bottom line is to teach children that other people matter. No matter what they look like or how they act, all people matter and deserve to be treated with respect and compassion.