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24 Mar, Friday
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Montreal Families

How to teach kids about empathy

Waiting at a red light on a busy downtown street with my kids in the car, we found ourselves face to face with a dirty, dishevelled teen holding a cardboard sign.

“Hungry, homeless and broke. Please help.”

In the few seconds it took us to read his sign, my kids were in an uproar. Here was a kid in need. He was hungry and he had no money. They were appalled that I didn’t empty my purse into his waiting baseball hat or invite him and his dog into our car to join us for dinner.

I was taken aback, both by their complete innocence in the face of need and by my own hard-heartedness. I had clearly registered this boy in my field of vision, but I hadn’t really “seen him” until my girls clamoured in the backseat for me to help him. He was an unfortunate part of a familiar urban landscape for me, but they were suburban kids, sheltered for the most part from these harsh realities. My children wanted to know how I had even considered not helping him. They were almost in tears.

Based upon my professional knowledge of troubled street youth, I was uncomfortable giving him cash. I was also frankly ashamed that if my kids hadn’t been in the car, I would have driven right past him without more than a moment’s hesitation. I had no more than the few minutes afforded by traffic to figure this out. I dug around in our lunch bags and pulled out an apple, a granola bar and a fruit juice and passed them through the window.

When we drove away, I felt defeated by the whole experience. My kids had a million questions about how a teenager ended up hungry and broke on the streets. I had precious few good answers. They wanted to know how all the grownups could drive by him in their cars without stopping to make sure he was OK. I honestly didn’t know what to say. But it got us talking about the things we can do to make the world around us a little better, even if we couldn’t always solve the big problems.

In a society where so much is available to some kids at a very young age, and where so much time, energy and money is put on developing our children’s unique abilities, we tend to forget to teach them how to make a difference in the world. Giving children regular opportunities to perform acts of kindness and goodwill towards others – and modelling this ourselves – can help develop the important and overlooked quality of empathy.

Acts of kindness and goodwill can vary from person to person, and it may take a bit of creativity to find the particular gesture that will resonate best for each person. Most kids readily understand the concept of charity, and can appreciate the donation of used clothing and toys to the needy. That’s a relatively painless start. The next step, requiring a little more effort and selflessness comes with teaching kids to give of their time or money, since those things obviously have more intrinsic value than clothing they have outgrown.

When kids make efforts to help those who are needy, we are teaching them that some people struggle to make do with less as well as the idea that each individual has a responsibility to make the world a better place. This ability to consider the welfare of others is an important part of maturity, and it’s arguably something some of us adults need to refine as well.

For other kids, giving of their time to help clean up a local park, pitch in to a community garden or raise money for a hospital or school helps them develop more of a stake in different social causes. It helps shift the focus off themselves and it cultivates an appreciation for the community.

One of the most important ways to teach kids about acts of kindness and goodwill is, of course, to model them yourself. Discuss with your children why you contribute money to certain causes, whatever they are. If your kids receive an allowance, talk about how they might set aside a certain amount or percentage each month that will be given to a charity of their choice.

Finally, it is important to remember that acts of kindness and goodwill that seem small and insignificant to us can make a world of difference to others. Cleaning your elderly neighbour’s walkway after a snowstorm, bringing a sick friend (or new mom) a home-cooked meal or even offering to keep a younger sibling occupied while mom or dad cooks dinner are all simple ways to brighten other people’s lives.

It’s completely normal for children to be focused on themselves a good deal of the time. But they also have a natural interest in helping others, and there are so many creative ways to help make this happen. Not only does it help them became better, more empathetic people, but it makes our communities kinder and more inviting places. And some of the time, they may teach us a thing or two as well.

Make acts of kindness a family affair

Volunteer together. Whether it’s stocking books at your local library, visiting a senior’s residence, or fostering a rescue animal awaiting adoption, there are a variety of ways you can spend quality time with your children while giving back to your community. The Volunteer Bureau of Montreal, www.cabm.net, lists on its website volunteer opportunities for young people ages 12 to 17. Many Home and School Associations also organize fundraisers and other volunteer events during the year.

Find out how small sums can make a huge difference. Children might want to investigate the site www.kiva.com, which offers micro-loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. For as little as $25, a child can help someone (often women) create and run a business by offering them a loan. This is a terrific way to talk to children about issues such as poverty, small businesses and credit. (Note that Kiva boasts an impressive repayment rate of over 98 per cent).

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