Teaching Compassion to Children: Start When They Are Babies

We all want our children to be compassionate, but teaching this in our individualistic culture can be challenging. Here are my thoughts:

  1. Show compassion for your children from when they are babies. A person can only be compassionate if he has experienced compassion from others. We comfort babies when they cry, even when we don’t know the reason, and we don’t let babies cry to teach them a lesson or force them to fall asleep. Showing compassion to babies develops a capacity for compassion not only in the child but also in ourselves. By inuring ourselves to their screams we become less sensitive to the pain of others.
    As a child grows, showing compassion when it is not needed can be harmful, like picking up a child’s shoe when she says she is too tired. But usually, focusing on the emotions behind the negative feelings while emphasizing correct actions will take us in the right direction.
  2. Children learn from our compassion toward younger children. When we show compassion to younger children, older children internalize our emotions and behavior. A discussion of compassion can help parents to explain to small children why needs of a helpless infant take priority.
  3. Model compassion for others in need. There is no shortage of ways to show compassion both within the family and out. When we come across someone in need we can enlist our children, explaining how and why we help others. For example, we find out what the person truly needs, talk sensitively to them, and listen.
  4. Teach children compassion through gratefulness. There are always others in worse situations.

What are your ideas for helping children develop compassion?

(Thanks to Abbi and Keren for the inspiration in the comments on Over-Parenting.)


  1. I have a neighbor who is the personification of compassion. I have never met anyone like her in my life. This middah can be seen in her husband and kids as well. She has compassion on animals and so do her children. If they see a weak or sickly cat they may take it to their yard and feed it outside their home until it grows to be stronger. They once took in a stray cat and nursed it back to health. Then the cat got pregnant and they took care of the kittens. They still shelter them in the rain and feed them even though they are all grown.

    She also makes sure to model compassion towards others who are less fortunate. She works in the local gmach and they give all of their used clothes that are too small but still in good condition to the gmach. She also never says no to anyone who asks her for a favor. She knows that people wouldn’t ask if they wouldn’t need it. Once when she was younger, perhaps she was in the taking role but now she’s very happy to give. She watches a neighbor of ours who has some problems. I don’t know exactly what the problems are but socially she doesn’t quite fit in and her moter skills aren’t so good. This makes her a bit clumsy. Everyone makes fun of her in school. My neighbor goes out of her way to model to her children how to be compassionate to this girl and how they should should act towards her. She tries to teach them to involve her in their games. I think that so far she has done a wonderful job and I feel grateful to Hashem for letting me be her neighbor so that I too can learn from her what compassion truly means.

  2. BB, that’s a really great point about your neighbor encouraging her kids to include the awkward friend. I feel that a lot of parents in Israel take a hands off approach at the playground (ie: let the kids work it out for themselves.) I think it’s good to get involved (but not too overbearing) and help kids work out sticky situations like this, so it ends up as a positive experience for everyone.

  3. “A person can only be compassionate if he has experienced compassion from others.”

    when i look around at friends, neighbors, etc. i am amazed at how much kids take after their parents. (although of course it could also be simple genetics rather than modeling/conditioning.)

    “we don’t let babies cry to teach them a lesson or force them to fall asleep”

    what age group are you referring to here?

  4. My daughter’s metapelet is convinced that I’m “spoiling” my 3.5 month old by wearing him to keep him calm, and that this is why he doesn’t want to play by himself.

    Over the past week, he’s suddenly developed an interest in playing by himself on the floor, despite our continued baby wearing.

    I expect that when he crawls, his desire to be worn will wane further. In the meantime, I’m happy to teach my baby that mommy is there for him whenever he needs her.

    I wore my first for many hours a day when she was an infant (up to about 9 months) – to the point that my nieces and nephew teased me about not ever using the stroller. People kept warning me that she’d get used to being held and I’d have to hold her all the time. Today, at almost 2, she loves to walk by herself, and only asks to be picked up when she’s tired, and even then, she doesn’t complain about being put in a stroller.

    BTW – I don’t necessarily advocate baby-wearing. I advocate doing what your newborn needs to be calm and happy. If they’re calm and happy in a swing, a stroller, or lying on the floor with toys, then go with it.

  5. mominisrael says

    LoZ, that is a tough question. I think it’s normal for kids up to age two or more–or longer– to need someone nearby when they are going to sleep. I don’t believe they are trying to manipulate parents by crying, they are simply lonely and distressed. Changing bedtime routines takes time and patience and is a gradual process.

  6. Sleep is one area I really part with AP. When my oldest was 7 months old, she got into a really bad sleep pattern of going to sleep at 7 pm and waking up every hour and a half. She didn’t want to wake up and play, she just wanted to be nursed back to sleep. At first I kept going in to nurse her, but I saw over the course of a week how this constant waking destroyed her sleep, made her miserable and made me miserable. We did about two nights of crying it out. When i would try to go in and comfort her, it only made her angrier, so I waited about a half hour until she would let me come in and calm her. After the first night she fell asleep and only woke up once at 3-4 am. She was a completely different baby the next day. She napped her regular naps, went to bed at seven the next night. She woke up once again and cried for about 15 minutes. The next night or the night after she just slept through, again till 3-4 am.

    I don’t think I would have done her or myself any favors doing “child led” sleeping patterns. A great number of behavior problems in schools are due to poor sleep patterns and I think this one area where good habits from early on make a big difference. If the child doesn’t have naturally even sleep patterns, then I think parents have to help.

  7. mominisrael says

    BB, thanks for sharing about your inspiring neighbor.
    Abbi, I’m glad it worked for you. You could be right about school problems. But there is a lot of time between 7 months and school or even gan, and many developmental changes.

  8. in my experience, spoiling my son re. sleeping patterns was not good for him or us. we are still paying the price.

  9. In my experience, as well, good sleep patterns established early work better for everyone in the long run. Of course there are exceptions for sickness and teething. But I have found that sticking to the routine, even during developmental changes, means that everyone wakes up cheerful, pretty much goes to bed when they are supposed to and stays in their own bed through the night. Since I really can’t handle sleeping with kids in bed (although i took eli in with me after 3 am till he was about 6 months old), it works for us.

  10. mominisrael says

    LoZ, you’ve mentioned this before. Without knowing specifics, when issues including sleeping, toilet training, and eating turn into a battle, it takes longer for children to move on to the next stage. Also, parents need to be certain a) that they want to address this issue at this time and b) they are comfortable with the approach they have chosen.

  11. I think that establishing good sleep patterns is a combination of factors.
    There are different methods of “sleep training” some of which involve very little crying – see “secrets of the baby whisperer”

    Personally, I think that in the first six months “crying it out” is unlikely to be helpful. There’s also the issue of what you’re teaching the child. I don’t like the message “no matter how much you cry, mommy and daddy aren’t going to help you.”

    It’s a whole complicated thing, because children absolutely need a schedule and need to sleep at night, for their own health as well as the parents’ sanity.

    On the other hand, there has to be a balance. If my kids wake up at night, I don’t let them scream through it. I go in, check what’s wrong, take care of any issues (dirty diapers, hungry baby, cold, etc), and then settle them back to bed. Sometimes, I’m convinced that Kinneret had a bad dream, so I will spend 5 minutes rocking her back to calmness before I put her back to bed.

    Somehow you have to get the message through that sleep is a good thing and that parents are there to help if there’s a problem, but sleep itself isn’t a problem. It’s complicated, and I consider myself seriously blessed that Kinneret is so cooperative.

    (Ephraim, otoh, well, he just wants to eat all night. When it gets out of control, I give him formula, b/c it takes less time to feed him and keeps him full longer. Parental sanity is certainly a part of my equation.)

  12. Chicken Coop says

    great post(why i keep getting an error when i try to subscribe to your feed)?thanks

  13. I completely agree with you. Nurturing character starts from a very young age.


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