How to Cultivate a Heart of Compassion in Your Kids

how to teach compassion to children

Today I’m thrilled to introduce a practical and insightful guest post by Gina Poirier of Holding the Distaff. Hop on over to Gina’s blog and check out her great writing on family life, homemaking, and practical Christianity. Some of my favorite posts of Gina’s are How to Help the Perfectionist Child (ahem, I have at least two of those, plus, you know, I have perfectionist issues myself), 10 Common Misunderstandings of the Proverbs 31 Woman, and 5 Benefits of a Weekly Family Night. I know you’ll enjoy getting to know Gina as much as I have!

How to Cultivate a Heart of Compassion in Your Kids

“How do you guys prevent your kids from being selfish?” I asked our friends earnestly. Specifically at that moment in time it seemed like our two boys were becoming a little too obsessed with electronics, their Legos, and everything material. I was hoping for some strategies to help them be at least a little less self-obsessed.

They laughed. “Let us know when you figure that one out!”

Maybe you’re laughing too.

Poor naïve little me—I was a little surprised! Up until this point (my oldest was then five), I expected that whatever parenting dilemma I had, it was only temporary. Kids eventually sleep through the night; they don’t stay in diapers or drink bottles forever; they can be taught to control tantrums.

But selfishness? Do most adults even overcome that?

This conversation happened a couple of years ago at a parenting class. I remember it because it was one of those defining moments when I realized: This problem is BIG. And we will be battling it for a long time.

It’s a tough one because selfish behavior can be difficult to identify and correct. Once kids are past preschool, our job gets more complicated than teaching them how to share. And kids are smart; they might start trying to manipulate you or hide their true feelings so they can get what they want.

But disciplining the heart is the whole essence of godly parenting. (It’s why I love Elizabeth’s blog!) We have to fight for our kids’ hearts from a young age if we’re going compete against an enticing world full of entertainment and pleasure at the touch of a finger.

One of the values that we want our kids to have ingrained in them is a heart of compassion. We can’t prevent every selfish thought and subsequent action in our kids. But we can fill their lives up with opportunities to think about and do things that are meaningful and help them to focus on problems outside of themselves.

We have six-year-old, a five-year-old and a three-year-old, and my husband and I firmly believe that it’s never to soon to start teaching and training your kids in compassion. I hope you find these tips helpful and encouraging in the fight for our kids’ hearts.

  1. Start with your own heart.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, right? Are you someone who eagerly serves others, or are you eager to find your next opportunity for self-indulgence? This is a really broad topic, but I think I generally know when I’m in a selfish funk. I spend purposeless time scrolling through social media on my phone; I snap at my kids when they bug me; I’m not thinking about or praying for anyone but myself. I crave “me time,” but when I get it, I don’t feel refreshed.

The best place to start when overcoming your own selfishness is the Bible. More specifically, Jesus. Sit as his feet; examine his character; explore what he wanted his followers to live like. Some starters include the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) and Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1–7). Or do a word search on “compassion” to discover more about God’s heart to serve.

  1. Set an example.

I think many parents want to be able to serve others, but they feel tied down by the demands of their own family. And I completely understand—I had three kids ages three and under at one point! But think about it this way: If you don’t show your kids how it’s done, how in the world can you expect them to do it on their own? You may not be able to go on mission trips or start the next award-winning nonprofit at this stage in your life, but you are not as tied down as you think.

When you cook dinner, make a double-batch and freeze the rest for someone in need, like a new mom or someone with health challenges. If you can’t get away from home, invite others in for dinner! Rake your neighbor’s lawn or shovel the snow off their driveway. At the very least, if you can’t do much physically, you can always pray. Make a list of people in need around the world: refugees, the homeless, orphans, the people you know who are sick or hurting. Pray for them with your kids. I think you’ll find that once you start thinking about it and orienting your heart in the right direction there are endless ways to serve in simple but powerful ways.

  1. Train your kids to serve at home.

When you have a newborn, you become accustomed to responding to their every squeak and movement, and this is only natural and good. But they get bigger and more self-sufficient sooner than you might think. As soon as possible, teach them that it is simply an expectation in your home that they help out. It starts with picking up their own toys and self-care; by ages three and four they can pick up quite a few simple chores.

How does this relate to serving others? If your kids are in the habit of serving at home, it won’t be a big stretch for them to do something beyond the home.

  1. Have family devotionals on serving.

It’s funny how when kids learn a new skill, like setting the table, they are super excited to help at first. But then after doing it a few times they start to realize, Hey—this is work! Not so fun, and thus not so exciting. Attitudes set in. And this is the critical juncture when our parenting skills will be put to the test.

It’s so important to be proactive about addressing our kids’ attitudes, but sometimes my mind is just blank about what to say or do. Fortunately we have this fail-proof resource available to address the attitude issue: the Bible, surprise! I would give you an awesome family devotional idea, except Elizabeth already has like 9,000 of them on her website so I won’t steal her thunder. We recently did Teaching Kids to Go the Extra Mile and I still refer to it regularly when we need an attitude check. I am not super creative but that’s okay; often we just talk about scriptures casually during our daily routines. A couple of weeks ago we memorized Matthew 7:12 together: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Whatever you do, make it easy to implement; it doesn’t need to be complicated.

  1. Serve as a family.

Once we personally get into the habit of serving others, it isn’t too hard to pull our kids in. Some simple and fun activities that kids can help with include making cards, baking, picking up trash at the park, helping the neighbors with yard work, and cleaning up at church or friends’ houses. Sometimes we all help with a local program that packs weekly food bag for kids in need to take home from school. While not all volunteer organizations have family volunteer activities available, some of them are more than happy to involve the next generation.

  1. Empower your kids.

From the time they could talk, my kids have all been extremely stubborn about wanting to do things all by themselves. While it’s annoying to watch a toddler take an hour to put his shoe on, it’s rewarding when later on they are able to do things independently. When they get to school age, I believe it’s important to provide them with independent service opportunities. You can do this formally through organizations like Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts, and church groups, or you can brainstorm ways they can create their own home-based service projects. Maybe they could open a lemonade stand that raises money for a good cause or volunteer to mow an elderly neighbor’s yard.

Many kids have opportunities in high school to go on a service trip or do some weightier volunteer projects. I think these are so valuable, especially if otherwise sheltered kids are exposed to real poverty and become more aware of the world’s harsh realities. Plus they usually have to fundraise, which can help them feel like they’re taking ownership. One caveat: make sure you are working with a reputable organization that is making a measureable difference and not just giving kids a tour.

Selfishness is going to be a lifelong battle for our kids (and us parents!), but prioritizing a lifestyle of compassion is a powerful way to fight it.

What does your family do to cultivate compassion?

Please leave a comment or visit me at my blog, Holding the Distaff, and let me know your thoughts! You can also find me on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and Twitter. –Gina

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy:

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Everything You Need for Lice and Godliness

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One Day, Somehow (A Promise for a Grieving Friend)

A poem to encourage a grieving friend


One day, somehow, you will smile again.

One day, somehow, you will laugh again.

One day you will smile and laugh,

without the ache of haunted memory,

the insistent voice accusing,

You’re not supposed to be happy. Not yet. Not ever.


One day you will feel a little like your old self again—

not the same,

never exactly the same,

but still, somehow, you.

One day you will look to the future and see light,

and hope,

and the kind of tomorrows you want to live in.

One day—someday—somehow, you will.

Maybe sooner than you think.


But as we wait for that day, know that

I pray for you,

I wait with you,

I hurt with you.

If you want me to, I will walk these dark days with you,

the ones without smiles and laughter and sunshine.

I’ll share the sorrow, the silence, the shadow,

as long as it takes.

We can talk or not talk,

as long as you need.


One day you will wake to a day less dim.

And when you are ready to step into the light,

I’ll share that day too.

Remind you to wear shades, if at first the light hurts your eyes.

Hold your hand—maybe even tell jokes—while you relearn how to walk in full sun.


And one day, my friend, you’ll do the same for me.

One day.

One Day, Somehow by Elizabeth Laing Thompson


 If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy:

First Dance

When Being a Grown-Up Means You’re Still Growing Up

When Kids Know God Better than We Do

Full Circle


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Defeat Deceit: 7 Scriptures to Teach Kids to Be Honest

how to teach kids to be honest

The next Lizzy Life YouTube video is up: “Defeat Deceit: Teaching Children to Be Honest.” I absolutely believe parents can nip lying in the bud with young children—we can stop the habit before it ever gets started. Yep, I’m talking about three-, four- and five-year-olds! How is that possible? Check out the video where I explain the approach that’s worked with our kids. (I also address the issue for older kids—how to reset the family expectations when lying has become a problem.)

As a follow-up to the video, these seven scriptures are helpful tools in teaching kids of all ages the importance of telling the truth. With young children, we want to encourage a habit of honesty in all things. As kids mature, the emphasis moves beyond the simple “always tell the truth,” to the concept of embracing openness in our relationship—letting us in on their thoughts and feelings so we can guide them through life, and develop a truly close relationship.

1. Genesis 3:1–15

Adam and Eve disobeyed God, then they tried to hide it from him. But God came looking for them! God always knows what’s going on with us, and even when we make mistakes, he comes after us to try to make things right. Parents feel the same way about our children. All kids make mistakes and disobey. But even when kids mess up, parents want to make things right between us. We want our children to come to us and tell us what mistakes they make, rather than trying to hide from us. Even though kids might get in trouble for doing something wrong, they will get in much less trouble if they tell the truth about it! If they lie and get caught, the consequences are so much worse.

2. Exodus 20:16

Honesty is one of the Ten Commandments! From the very beginning, God has wanted his people to tell the truth.

3. Numbers 32:23

This scripture says, “But if you fail to do this, you will be sinning against the Lord; and you may be sure that your sin will find you out.” This scripture reveals a powerful principle: God makes sure that our sin “finds us out.” That means that the truth will always come out. Somehow, God will usually make sure Mom or Dad finds out what a kid is up to. It’s so much better to tell the truth yourself, rather than get caught!

4. Genesis 18:1–15

I love the so-honest-it’s-amusing story of Sarah, who lied to the messenger of God, because she was embarrassed and afraid. This story is a great example to use with older kids when we discuss reasons we are tempted to lie. The older we get, the more easily embarrassed we get. It’s tempting to say dishonest things in order to protect our reputation or image. You can draw your child out with questions like, “What embarrasses you? What would be some situations where you might be tempted to shade the truth to make yourself look better in front of your friends?” God still wants us to tell the truth, even if it makes us look bad. God didn’t punish Sarah, but he did call attention to her deceit. He wanted her to be honest.

Want more practical, Bible-based tools to help your family grow? Sign up for my monthly parenting newsletter, and you’ll receive a free download: seven devotions to do around the breakfast table with kids! 

5. Psalm 32 (This one’s so great that I’ll quote parts of it here, for reference.)

Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin. . . .
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
or they will not come to you.
Many are the woes of the wicked,
but the Lord’s unfailing love
surrounds the one who trusts in him.

What a great passage describing the way deceit affects us emotionally, and what it does to our relationship with God. You can use this psalm to draw out several key lessons about deception: Verse two tells us that we are blessed (happy, at peace, walking in God’s favor) when we do not have deceit our spirit (our inner self, who we really are). This is a great scripture for kids who tend to have a deceitful or sneaky nature. They’ve got to change from the inside, at a heart level.

Verses three and four remind us of how terrible we feel when we are hiding sin in our hearts—when we are lying about something that we are too afraid or too stubborn to talk about. We feel like we are “wasting away” inside: we might feel sick to our stomach, or tired, or anxious. God gives us those physical feelings as warnings, to help us see that deceit is a terrible way to live. Remind children: Even if Mom or Dad doesn’t know you are lying, God always knows, and he will do everything he can do to help you tell the truth. And if you don’t tell the truth yourself, God will usually make sure you get caught!

Verses five and six have the good news: Once we decide to stop covering up our sin, we can find forgiveness! God can forgive us, and people can forgive us. We can make things right.

Verse nine is great for appealing to stubborn kids who don’t want to give in—who keep fighting the truth, their parents, or God. This verse basically says, “Don’t make it harder on yourself than it has to be! Don’t make me make you do right! Don’t make me punish you, or keep a close eye on you because I don’t trust you! Why make your own life miserable?”

And verse ten has the good news: God loves us, and his unfailing love never disappoints us or leaves us alone. When we do right, God is pleased.

6. John 8:43–45

“Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

This is a sobering scripture that Kevin and I have used when we need to impress upon our children how serious deceit is. Satan always lies—it’s his “native language.” He’s the one who invented lies. So when we are dishonest, we are doing exactly what the devil wants us to do. We are speaking the same language as Satan! Yikes! We want to be like Jesus, who only spoke the truth from God.

7. Acts 5:1–11

I wouldn’t use the cautionary tale of Ananias and Sapphira with a little one because it’s pretty scary, but for a mature older child, preteen, or teen who is really struggling with deceit, this story will make a memorable impression. It shows that God does not mess around with deliberate deceit. God made a dramatic point and issued an awful punishment on these two adults, who had willfully sinned not just against God, but against the entire church.

I hope these passages give you some tools you need to impress the importance of honesty onto your kids’ hearts!

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy:

Teaching Kids to “Go the Extra Mile”

13 Scriptures to Help Siblings Get Along

When Your Kid Won’t Stop Whining

Keep Dancing 

13 Confidence-Building Scriptures for Kids and Teens

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