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Before we sign our children up for all of the amazing charitable events in our community, let’s take a look at our children’s ability to be kind and compassionate to others in need. We want to make sure they understand what it means when they help.
What is Compassion?
Compassion is what makes us want to be kind to others, and a major path to happiness. It is defined as the feeling that arises when we witness other people in distress and want to help stop their suffering.
Are We Born With Compassion?
Yes, compassion is a human instinct. Recent evidence indicates that humans have evolved to be compassionate. Our brain is wired to respond to others who are suffering. Helping them also makes us feel good–known as the “helper’s high”.
Compassion is a natural and automatic response that has allowed humans to survive throughout history. It has become a “survival of the fittest” trait. Charles Darwin wrote that “communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” We needed people to be kind to each other to ensure that our species continued to grow successfully over time.
How Do We Know This?
Several studies in recent years suggest that we are born with compassion.
- Nancy Eisenberg, an expert on children and compassion, has observed children as young as one years old noticing and reacting to someone in distress.
- Lara Akin and and her colleagues at the University of British Columbia conducted a study using a puppet to test toddlers’ ability to share. Observers rated the toddlers’ happiness in three different scenarios. The results show that the children appeared happier when they gave away a treat than when they received a treat.
- Scientists at the Max Planck Institute discovered that infants help others even though they are too young to have learned about being kind and polite. The children take action because of their own motivation, and not because they expect a reward.
- Another study at Max Planck Institute found that infants’ pupils increase in size when they see someone in need. However, their pupils shrink when they are able to help that person or when they see someone else help. These are clear biological instincts.
- Twin studies have shown that identical twins respond more similarly to an adult in distress than fraternal twins. This suggests that there is a genetic component to feelings of compassion.
What Does This Mean for Parents?
Even though children may come into this world with an instinct to help others, it is our job as parents to nurture and teach them about giving. As we know, so many negative experiences can darken our perspective and turn us off from wanting to help others. However, in order to keep the chain of kindness growing in the world, we need to guide our children to see past those discouraging experiences and to try again, and again, and again.
Do you have stories about your children showing compassion at a very young age?