The Only Way to Have Compassionate Kids is to Expose Them to Suffering

When you’re in a situation like mine and live amidst the middle class and wealthy, it’s easy to raise kids who lack compassion. Before you think this is some judgmental assumption or attack on their character, hear me out. They might be kind, but still lack compassion. They might be responsible and thoughtful, but still lack compassion. They might be exemplary students, friends, and neighbors, but still lack compassion.

Outside of the fact that growing compassion depends upon the soil of Scripture and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, there’s a very practical component that must be present in order for compassion to exist.

Compassion is the “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with the desire to alleviate it.” Simple enough. But the thing is, we don’t actually see a whole lot of distress around these parts. It’s not that it isn’t present, but rather that it comes in less visible forms. In our day to day life, my kids might encounter those silently suffering from depression, anxiety, broken relationships, and loneliness. But they don’t see lives wrecked because of war, famine, slavery, abandonment, and natural disaster. I might be able to teach limited compassion, the type that reaches out to the child whose disabilities have been met with disdain, or that offers comfort to the friend whose grandparent has died, but our natural circumstances probably won’t extend past that.

That is, unless I am intentional to expose my children to various forms of suffering.

This is why, when my son was 3, we watched a kid-friendly documentary that explored the incomprehensibly hard circumstances of those living on a dollar a day.

This is why, when my son was 4, we read books that examined our own country’s dirty history of racial oppression.

This is why, when my son was 5, we watched video footage of children being pulled out of the rubble in Aleppo.

This is why, several nights a week, we pray for widows, orphans, and other suffering people groups.

We frequently discuss war and terrorism, starvation and slavery, abuse and abandonment. Because of this, he’s asking questions like “Why are some people treated meanly because of their skin?” and “Why do some parents leave or hurt their children?” and “Why do refugees have nowhere safe to go?” Some might argue that I’ve gone too far. He’s only in Kindergarten! Is it fair to expose his innocent and idealistic mind to such harsh realities? I don’t know about “fair,” but if I want to raise a compassionate kid who grows into a compassionate adult, it’s absolutely necessary.

His life is filled with plenty of happiness and his carefree spirit hasn’t been crushed. But the weekly (and sometimes daily) practice of exposing him to suffering has provided opportunities for him to become “sympathetically conscious” and filled him with a “desire to alleviate it.” It’s stirred him to do extra chores in order to earn money to give to hungry orphans. It’s prompted him to donate some of his favorite toys to children in foster care. It’s helped him work through the frustration of language barriers as we volunteer weekly with local refugees. It’s planted dreams in his head to fly to Syria and bring aid to the hurting.

My son is no Mother Theresa and is often still selfish and self-focused. But because he is exposed to suffering, little embers of compassion are beginning to fan into flame. Dear loving parents, it is a mistake to guard our children from seeing the devastating afflictions endured by others. If we shield our kids too much, we’re infringing upon their abilities to seek justice and bring mercy to those who need it most. Compassion is one of the greatest forces of good that they can bring into the world, and we strip them of their opportunity to wield it if they live in happy naivety.

But if we teach them to be conscious of suffering, they can become sympathetic to it. If we model how to take action, they can learn ways to alleviate it. Just maybe, as we expose them to the ugly, unfair, and unthinkable distress others face, they’ll grow the ability to transform it into something beautiful, just, and redeemed.

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*Isaac drew this after watching footage from Aleppo.

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