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:

13 Scriptures to Help Siblings Get Along

Defeat Deceit: 7 Scriptures to Teach Kids to Be Honest

Everything You Need for Lice and Godliness

Two-Minute Devotions


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