Teaching Kids To Care: 8 Ways To Inspire Compassion

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Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of Free The Children and Me to We, a social enterprise. They are authors of "The World Needs Your Kid: Raising Children Who Care And Contribute," with journalist Shelley Page.

Like hundreds of millions of our fellow North Americans, we spent a not-insignificant part of our childhood watching a coyote try to drop an anvil onto a roadrunner.

As a result, all of us are mistrustful of the shoddy workmanship of products from the Acme Company. But not all of us grew up wanting to blow up birds. In fact, most of us became caring and compassionate adults.

How can this be explained? Well, we conducted our own study, very scientifically, over lunch. Actually, it was long-time volunteer and board member for Free The Children, retired principal John Gaither, who has treated every new staff member to lunch over the past several years. John asks each of his lunch dates to name the person who helped nurture their social awareness. The answer every time, Gaither swears, is: "my parents."

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Gaither's unorthodox findings are backed up with formal studies, including a 2006 survey of one thousand young Americans ages 15 to 25 that revealed a clear link between parents who volunteer and their kids' sense of the importance of service. A similar survey in the Netherlands in 2004, and a book of research on parental role models in Nancy Eisenberg's The Caring Child (1992) demonstrate similar findings.

Many parents encourage community involvement to help their kids "get ahead", and it's true to an extent: scholarships and other opportunities that reward volunteer experience feed into a positive loop of more opportunities, networking and open doors.

It's important to note, however, that it's not just about getting ahead -- it can be about just getting in. Last month, the University of British Columbia announced that it will be the first major Canadian university to shift exclusively to "broad-based" admissions for all undergraduate programs -- that is, community involvement, leadership and other experiences will be considered in addition to grades for all incoming students, not just for scholarships.

If that seems like a lot of pressure, just remember: solid parenting (and dodgy Acme products) can help defeat the Roadrunner and the graphic scenes your kids will be exposed to in their young lifetime. The key is to tilt the balance toward compassion through your parenting. We've heard countless great stories of creative parenting, and here are eight great strategies for instilling care in children:

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1. Canada's Next Top Model: You!
You know that phrase your preschooler keeps repeating that you never realized you said so often? Right from birth, kids take their cues from parents -- so make sure they see your best side. Show them that acts of caring are part of everyday life. When they're old enough to understand (and even before), explain why you're calling to check in on an old friend, running an errand for a neighbour, or making extra soup to bring to an elderly relative.

2. Teaching Empathy
A classic study of children watching a violent cartoon showed that those kids who were asked to consider the victim's feelings found the cartoon less funny and scored lower on measures of post-viewing aggression. Labelling and discussing emotions is the first step to unlocking your child's innate empathy - encourage them from a young age to name their own feelings and relate to the feelings of others (real others they meet, and imaginary others during make-believe time, like the dragon they just slew).

3. Help Starts At Home
Get your household chores done and spend quality time with your kids at the same time! Bring your toddler along for laundry, recycling and cooking - work on their learning too by counting cans or catching socks for the dryer. Gradually assign more advanced tasks for them to take on, until one day the garbage has gone out without you noticing!

4. Teach Responsibility By Giving It
Our friend Julie moved all her dishes to the bottom shelves in the kitchen so her three kids could set the table without help. At age four, Marc was assigned a small corner of a room we were redecorating and given a pile of wallpaper strips (his rather crooked handiwork was straightened by morning by a mysterious "wallpaper fairy" whose identity remains unknown). When kids feel that their help is needed and welcomed, they gain confidence that they have a contribution to make, and they keep on helping.

5. Random Acts Of Kindness
We heard just last week about Joey, a dad in suburban Vancouver who was walking home with his five-year-old son Oliver after a morning toboggan run, when they came across an elderly woman struggling to shovel her sidewalk. Joey stopped and borrowed the stranger's shovel, finishing the job while Oliver assisted using a toy shovel he'd brought to the park. Be on the lookout for ways to go out of your way for someone in need, and your child will take notice. In the same way, if your habit is to "walk on by", then your kid will, too.

6. See A Problem, Take Action!
Parents often ask us how to explain homelessness or poverty to their kids without making them feel depressed. We tell them the best antidote to helplessness is action, and the size of the action you take is directly proportionate to the size of your child. Preschoolers may not be ready for a soup kitchen or food bank, but they can turn their Halloween trick-or-treating into a canned food drive. Creative parenting expert Silvana Clark suggests making healthy snack kits for children in women's shelters (that mom or dad drop off), or donating old toys to local charities helping families in need.

7. Volunteer Together
When we first started with school boards to help encourage volunteerism, kids were pretty liberal in what they thought could pass as "volunteering" -- bagging groceries at the supermarket, answering the phone at dad's office, or handing out flyers for a pizzeria. From the time they can sort and count boxes of macaroni and cheese, your kids can volunteer with you by their side. Try different venues -- seniors' homes, animal shelters, park clean-ups -- and new ideas to help them find their spark: that issue or group to which they most enjoy contributing their time and energy. Soon they'll be volunteering without you because they've hooked all their friends into doing it with them.

8. Use Their Gifts
We're often asked how to convince teenagers to put down the video game console, ball glove, or drumsticks and go volunteer. Why not take those things along? (Well, to a certain extent.) Volunteering won't be boring if you're doing something you enjoy. The computer-savvy teen can help the food bank with their website, the athlete can coach a little-league team, and the musician can entertain at the seniors' home (with age-appropriate tunes, of course). Encouraging your kid to help others by showing off their talents and doing what they love to do is one of the easier sells you'll have during those, let's say, reluctant teenage years.

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