I don’t think there’s one parent in the world who doesn’t want to raise their child to be a good person. We want them to be good citizens of the world, and good citizenship is built on compassion — caring not just for your family and friends, but for your neighbors, and the world at large, too. Compassion means thinking about events from other people’s perspectives. Not being selfish and self-centered. Making decisions with consideration to other people’s feelings, and having sympathy for those who are struggling or in pain. Compassion means cultivating a large heart with deep feelings.
Take a look at all of our Citizen Kids, and you’ll see compassion in beautiful action. Some, like Hailey, the nine-year-old figure skater, and Justus, the 14-year-old chess master, take time out of their already packed schedules to share their expertise and enthusiasm with other kids. Others, like 15-year-old veterinary assistant Courtney and 12-year-old recycler Sam, work to make the earth a better place to live for people, plants, and animals.
Raising a child to value compassion isn’t always easy, though. So many of society’s messages encourage Americans to think only of ourselves. How can I get more money, more stuff, more fame, more influence? Sometimes it seems that the more extreme your selfishness, the more likely you are to be celebrated and praised. Acting compassionately requires going against this grain and paying attention to how your actions affect those around you. In my experience, with some nudging, kids quickly begin to notice how it feels better to be nice to others, while causing conflict or strife is uncomfortable. Kids need parents to help them create a moral compass, to guide them toward recognizing that not all attention is good attention — a smiling face make us warm and satisfied, but tears, if we stop to pay attention, leave us unsettled.
As a dad raising a little boy, talking about my emotions is of utmost importance. For a long time, American men equated strength and power with stoic and unsentimental. A dad would become angry when a child broke his rules, and in television and movies you’d see fathers seeking vengeance and retribution on anyone who threatened his family, but men didn’t cry, or discuss their fears and vulnerabilities. Dads might cheer a child from the sidelines of a sporting event, but they wouldn’t provide comfort and hugs because of a boo-boo, or a bad day at school. Moms did that sort of thing.
American men are able to express a fuller range of emotions in today’s society, and to play a more active role in raising children. Perhaps the two go together. It’s impossible, I think, to spend a lot of time with a little kid and not field questions about feelings, ethics, and morals — right and wrong. Being with your children awakens your heart. You’ll feel your stomach tingling with love for them, your hands will ache with the desire to protect and guide them. And yes, you’ll get angry sometimes too, of course.
Often, when spending the afternoon with Felix, I find myself taking a deep breath and plunging into honest, unscripted conversations about my feelings and thoughts. “Yes, I feel scared sometimes,” I tell Felix when he admits to having fears about monsters. And I’m sad sometimes too. And I also miss Mommy when she’s at work. Everyone has a rich inner life, I tell him. We all have feelings. So when he has a particularly bad tantrum and he uses aggressive language, I say, “That’s not a nice thing to say. You’re hurting my feelings.”
I try to let him know that kicks and scratches aren’t the only way you can hurt someone. Words can sting, and so can ignoring someone, or teasing them, or being inconsiderate. Causing people pain is not right, nor does it feel good to knowingly do it.
These are not easy conversations to have, in part because I myself am always trying to be a better, more compassionate person. Compassion is a process, it’s not a place to be. We all have moments where we’re not our best selves. As parents, we sometimes treat our children without compassion! But we have to be compassionate to ourselves, too, and forgive ourselves the occasional slip.
I like looking to models of compassionate behavior to help keep myself inspired and on the right path. In the Citizen Kid videos, I see young people who are working to make the world a better place. That’s what citizenship is: moving through life with consideration to the people, animals, plants, and planet around you. Citizenship is taking care of others, as well as yourself, and leaving a sea of smiles in your wake.More On