Cultivating Compassion


Chances are that many of us remember our parents going for the guilt-trip to get us to eat those peas: “Eat your food. There are children starving in Africa.” It’s a rather unhelpful sentiment because (1) the two are by no means intrinsically related (as if eating your peas could cure world hunger), and (2) calling out a serious issue of global food scarcity and hunger for the sake of your well-fed child’s extra nutrient seems insensitive and self-serving.

Truth told, there have been times I wanted to repeat that phrase to my own children, not for the sake of monitoring their vegetable consumption so much as an effort to instill a bit of empathy in them for others with different life experiences than their own. But, as we know, it’s less our lectures and more our actions that teach our children those deepest held values and beliefs.

I learned about serving other people by riding shotgun in my mom’s station wagon. As the youngest child of four, I accompanied my mom on endless errands and countless volunteer outings. I remember charity garage sales and delivering meals to the bereaved. I recall learning to send cards for any and every occasion and making visits to nursing homes for the elderly who had no nearby family. I have fond memories of opening our home to a family whose home was flooded and of my mom bringing her hair stylist lunch every time we went because my mom knew she didn’t have time to take a break in her workday.


What I don’t remember is a sermon on the importance of helping others less fortunate than myself. I have no memory of a speech of how entitled I acted as a teenager, or how self-centered I was as a middle-schooler, or how naïve I was as a child. She showed me serving by serving and letting me learn by being right there at her side.

Of course, that was decades ago, and now every school requires community service hours and ways to give back to your community. Those requirements are all well and good, but they are essentially that — requirements, making sure your form is signed, the box is checked, your obligatory duty is completed. I fear our modern-day emphasis on the number of hours of community service will do to our children will lessen the degree that they discover true and personal empathy, or compassion for others on a relational level. And, I believe that empathy is the foundation for kindness that stems from a genuine desire to exist in community, and not from a “this-looks-good-on-my-resume” way of thinking.

So, what can we do as parents?


We can skip the guilt-trips and the lectures and load them in the minivan and take them beyond what they know as community. By educating our children through experiential avenues for service, they learn by observing, and they learn through awareness. Just tonight I took my children to a youth homeless shelter to provide a meal. It’s minutes from our home, and before tonight, they were not aware that something like this existed. I answered their questions in an age-appropriate manner but never had to say “count your blessings” and “be grateful for all you have.” They got it. Awareness and education are critical, and this can be done through tours of service agencies, watching documentaries about hunger, reading books about helping others, or taking a driving tour of less served parts of our community.



Don’t just talk about it, do something. Serve a meal. Play with other children. Package get-well kits or disaster buckets. Write a letter. Send a box. Bake some cookies. Deliver flowers. Visit a nursing home (kids can light up senior homes in a heartbeat!). Wash a dog at a shelter. Donate clothes and toys. Make a charitable lemonade stand. Give money and involve your kids in that process, and perhaps even in that decision. Hand out a bottle of water. Do a random act of kindness. Kids often enjoy being helpful. Try connecting deeply with one or two organizations as a regular volunteer. Find some friends and commit to trying things together. The best place to start is to ask yourself and your child(ren) “for whom/what does my heart break?” and then plug in there.


When your engagement matches your concerns, the higher the chances that you will instill something much deeper than feel-good community service. You will cultivate empathy and a genuine connection to a cause or community. And empathy is something that cannot be taught; it is something that can be “caught” by observing and doing.



Being with people different from ourselves and engaging in experiences outside of our own may cause the need for reflection. Find time to process and evaluate what you experience and what they observe. Ask simple questions or let them express their experience through artwork or on a Skype with grandma. Give space for their questions, even when you don’t have the answers, so that you are learning together by serving together.


Like all things in parenting, your own involvement is crucial. Emulate what you want them to learn. Children are watching how we respond to those in need. They see where we place priorities and when we show courage through care and compassion to the vulnerable. When we as parents are emulating outreach and service in our daily lives, it does not go unnoticed. And who knows? That just may work with eating vegetables, too.

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Robyn met her husband in his homestate of North Carolina, and, as he says, they “comprised” after marriage and settled one hour from her family and six states from his. Still, they love to visit friends and family in North Carolina every year with their 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. They have gladly called Fort Worth home for more than a decade where Robyn works as a pastor at a Presbyterian church, particularly focused on mission outreach and family ministry. Reading “grown up” books, having travel adventures, and enjoying thoughtful conversations are what keep her going.


  1. Yes! Yes! Yes!
    Robyn, this article is written so beautifully and it’s so convicting – thank you for sharing the truths I need to hear over and over again. This article could not have come at a better time as this week’s lesson in my Bible study group is on, you guessed it, compassion! Even though my son is not quite two years, I know his little eyes are watching and learning everything we do at home, church, and in the community. Compassion starts at home and you have provided excellent ways of serving others and getting out of our comfortable ruts to where the need is ever present. I love this article so much, thank you again for sharing!



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