There are three elements to teaching compassion.
The first is living it. If you are living a compassionate life, your kids will imitate it. And of course, there are many ways to be compassionate. Whether you’re serving food at a homeless shelter on Christmas Day or simply being kind to someone at the DMV, your kids are observing all of your behavior over the years and processing it as they get older. They will see major activities more clearly when they are younger, but as they get older they will notice details and subtle acts of compassion. They will remember what you do regularly — your habits and traditions.
Secondly, they need to practice it. Give them opportunities to choose some toys to give away, to clean up a mess so the janitor or waiter doesn’t have to, to give way to others. Take them to see different situations and circumstances, to serve others. Expose them to other compassionate people and go out of your way to encourage the ideas they come up with themselves.
Lastly, kids learn best when observations are paired with verbal processing. This means discussing it, reflecting on it, and brainstorming about it. Talk about what compassion means hypothetically and philosophically (as appropriate for their age) but also practically. How does it feel when you are compassionate and why? Yes, it feels good but might also be painful, requiring forgiveness or sacrifice. When they come home from school crying about another student being mean, discuss it. When they are annoyed with their sibling, a teacher, a stranger or a celebrity, talk about why they’re frustrated. When they don’t want to take care of their pets because it’s cold outside or they don’t want to visit grandma because they want to sleep in, come up with some pros and cons.
The bottom line is that the more effort we put in to making it part of their lives, the more likely it is to be a part of their lives. It’s hard, and none of us will do it as well as we hope, but whatever we can do will be so important for their future and the future of the world.