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Nurturing Compassion in Kids: What Parents Can Do

Wondering how you can cultivate a caring, content nature in your children? These six steps, filled with helpful tips and insight, show you how.

Happiness research has some surprising implications for parenting. It turns out that what we think will actually bring more happiness, doesn't. As parents, we mean to nurture compassionate, morally responsible kids – but we live in a culture pressuring us to make more money, be more educated and even live in a sunnier climate. As positive psychologist Martin Seligman acknowledges in Authentic Happiness, the research reveals those things aren't associated with increased happiness.

The happiest among us are in good marriages, have faith and have strong social connections. Many experts stress the key to strong connections with our children involves providing them with opportunities for compassion.

Psychologist Richard Weissbourd believes we are capable of raising "children who grow to be alert to signs of distress in other people, who feel responsibility for those from other classes or races or backgrounds, who feel propelled to give to the world in some way."

The following ideas for planting seeds of compassion will also strengthen emotional connections and nurture social development.

1. Play for better emotional health

Backyard football or playing Monopoly may not automatically spring to mind when you think "better emotional health," but they should. Get outside together. Touch each other. Fall in the mud. Laugh out loud. It's not time spent being "unproductive;" it is nurturing behavior.

2. Make yours a spiritual home

Whether you attend religious services or not, be intentional about discussing and modeling the values of your faith. It is quite easy to get caught up in the realm of the physical world, so it takes conscious effort on your part to provide balance.

3. Set a stage for success

Habitually ask your children what they think they do well and have them demonstrate. For my son, it has always thrilled him to show off his ability to effortlessly walk on his hands. What is it for your child? Writing cursive? Pouring juice without help? They love showing you new skills and strengths. Your glowing response makes them feel 10-feet tall.

4. Give them your time

We sometimes underestimate how much our kids want to spend moments with us. They're not going to come out and say "I'd like more time with you," because they are not always aware of what they need. Just know your time matters.

5. Laugh together

The latest research shows that laughter can decrease stress hormones and boost the immune system. As Daniel Pink points out in A Whole New Mind, "laughter is a social activity – and the evidence is vast that people who have regular, satisfying connections to other people are healthier and happier." Tell jokes, watch comedy and, most importantly, model a good sense of humor yourself.

6. Create "we" moments

Clinician Michael Ungar discusses the need for our children to feel noticed and loved in order to embrace "we" instead of simply "me" in The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids. Rally your children to help with a project. It can be a community service project painting a school, helping an elderly neighbor with housework, serving meals to the homeless or volunteering at church. The compassion your kids develop from such activities is priceless – and will influence their futures.

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