Raising Compassionate Kids, Rethinking Compassion for Adults

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary.” -Rabbi Hillel

The Golden Rule has been around a while. Some think it was first taught by Confucius. Yet, according to religious scholar and worldwide compassion ambassador Karen Armstrong, this core idea, that you must not do to others what you would not want done to you, is at the heart of all religions. And she thinks this unifying thread is the secret to saving our world, if only we’d remember to follow it. Of course, we want to raise compassionate kids, and there are tips and resources below. But we also must consider how we, the adults, are doing. Are we compassionate only to our children, house plants, and those who pay us well or smile back at us at the customer service counter? Is compassion bigger than this? Are we compassionate with our investments? Compassionate shoppers? Is compassion something people must earn from us? It’s easy to get teary-eyed over pictures of starving children, but what about angry inmates? What will it take for compassion to change the world?

First, some religious history: Karen Armstrong, a former nun and now a global compassion advocate, is fascinated with the question of why our world is full of “religious” people who do bad things. She argues that we’ve let the core tenet of Do Unto Others take a back seat to beliefs and dogma, and that’s dangerous. As Armstrong says, we’d much rather be right than compassionate. It turns out, religion as a system of beliefs that must adhered to is a very new idea. Armstrong claims the concept of adhering to set of beliefs has slowly eroded what religion was originally all about: practice, a way of life, a system to guide you. And at the core of most religions was the law of compassion, of treating all people, even strangers and enemies, the way you want to be treated.

Unfortunately, in many fundamental religions of the world today, it’s now belief that takes precedent over practice. And this sets the tone for our aggressive world. The great saints and mystics, the Jesus’s and Buddha’s and Mother Theresa’s, were much more interested in in how we acted toward others than what we believed.

So we need to return to The Golden Rule, the real one. Sure, we all know this little nugget of Sunday School wisdom, but how many of us actively use it as a tool to judge our daily actions, our shopping choices, our investments? We think of compassion as a way to act towards our kids and our cat. But really, compassion should be at the heart of everything we do: our politics, our business models, our education system, and our response to enemies.

It sounds so simple: treat others as you wish to be treated. But many of us in America have a kind of Libertarian view of compassion. You leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone. Let’s all be nice and separate. You have the right to be poor and starve and live on the streets, and I have the right to my SUV and mansion. My compassion extends only as far as I’m comfortable with. But this neglects the global reality. Karen Armstrong argues that any religion that does not have a global perspective that is driven by compassion, not belief, is not a true faith.

We are not doing unto others when we consume unfair amounts of the world’s resources. We are not doing unto others when our good fortune is only made possible by someone else’s suffering. My cheap products pollute China and hurt children. Louis CK, of course, says it best:

”My life is really evil. There are people who are starving in the world, and I drive an Infiniti. That’s really evil….I could trade my Infiniti for like a really good car, like a nice Ford Focus with no miles on it, and I’d get back like $20,000. And I could save hundreds of people from dying of starvation with that money, and every day I don’t do it. Every day I make them die with my car.”

Thinking like this is painful. Of course, we can’t all trade in our cars for cheaper ones in order to give the money away. Who gets to decide how far to take this? If Louis CK sells his Infiniti for a nice Ford Focus, do I have to sell my old minivan for a tricycle?

Perhaps it’s not as much about what we do as who we do it to. At the core of The Good Samaritan story, the Bible’s best story about compassion, is the fact that the two main characters were political and religious enemies. The Good Samaritan saw himself in the suffering of his enemy, and so he took care of him. This is the compassion that will change the world: compassion towards enemies, toward those who mistreat us. That is how the world will be transformed.

A good way to start is to think about compassion as a daily practice. Buddhists believe that even the simple practice of wishing well to others (the loving-kindness meditation) can have an impact, especially when we do it to our enemies (Hint: it’s hard to think of someone as an enemy when you meditate on wishing them happiness). Compassion in the small interactions with strangers and local enemies like hostile co-workers, angry bosses, unfair neighbors, can be the small changes that lead to big shifts. The environmental movement is fond of making statements like, “if everyone changed just one light bulb in their house…”. We need to think like that in terms of compassion. If, once a day, every adult returned one act of aggression or unfairness or anger or inconsideration with concern and compassion, the world could be transformed.

Check out Karen Armstrong’s TEDtalk on compassion: Karen Armstrong on Compassion

Check out this great short video on what real empathy looks like: The Power of Empathy

Teaching Kids about Compassion

  • The best way to teach kids about compassion is by modeling compassion yourself. They watch how you treat others and copy your behavior.
  • Give kids opportunities to practice taking care of others, through volunteering, pet care, and family duties. Support them in this practice.
  • According to Marilyn Price-Mitchell of Roots of Action, one important step is to help kids deal with anger, which is “one of the greatest hindrances to compassion because it can overwhelm children’s minds and spirit.” Give kids tools to control their reactions of anger, like yoga and meditation. Once kids learn to control their reactions, they can then start to be taught compassion and concern for others.
  • Check out this great article by Craig and Marc Kielburger of Free the Children: “Teaching Kids to Care: 8 Ways to Inspire Compassion.”
  • Here’s one of our activities, which helps kids develop compassion for animals. Empathy Compassion Activity
  • Here’s an activity we made for teens, which guides them to explore the other side of something they believe strongly in: On the Other Side. If you can understand why a person might believe differently than you, you can start to feel compassion for them.

It all starts with compassion for yourself. Go easy. Pick your battles. Self-care. And if you have to, buy that new car.


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