Compassionate Children: Humane Education 101

When I was in college I babysat a lot of children.  One summer day, I was outside playing with a five-year-old boy named Isaac. As Isaac ran along the sidewalk, he came upon a giant ant hill.  Worried that he was going to smash it, I shouted, “Hey, watch out for the ants!”  He stopped in his tracks and looked down at the mountain of insects about a foot in front of him. While I was reveling in the crisis averted, Isaac began to methodically stomp down on the ants and scream, “Die! Die! Dieeeee!”

I ran up to him and pulled him away from the carnage.  When I asked him why he would do that, he laughed as only a mad scientist in a 1950s movie should laugh.

I later recounted this story to the boy’s mother, to which she similarly laughed and said, “Yeah, he’ll do that.” When I asked why, she said it was a “boy thing.”  She later added that Isaac and his father loved to go outside and find snakes to bash their heads in with shovels.  (Needless to say, I didn’t stay in that job long.)

For the majority of vegans, the thought of raising children with such a cavalier regard for the life of others is frightening at best.  But as disturbing as stories like these are, they remind us of the importance of parents and other adults to shape the attitudes and behaviors of young people. And while it is possible for adults to teach children that it is fun to kill others for no reason other than one’s personal entertainment, it is also possible to teach children the opposite.  

The field of humane education focuses on this very idea.  It is all about how we can teach children to be caring and kind.  Having studied this field for several years, I have compiled what I believe to be the top five tips to raise compassionate children. Read on to learn these tips and begin to put them to use.

  1. Volunteer Together – Volunteering with one’s children is a great way to get kids thinking about issues greater than themselves.  The key to successful volunteering is to do it regularly and to do it together.  If you tell your children they have to volunteer but aren’t willing to do it with them, they’re likely to resent it.  By volunteering together, you can make it a fun, educational family activity.  While you’re at it, try to hit a wide range of volunteer areas to expose your child to the many ways in which they can help.  Examples could include environmental cleanups, serving at a soup kitchen, playing games with seniors at a nursing home, or walking dogs at your local shelter.
  2. Help Animals – If you go outside, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll eventually come across animals in need.  Whether it’s a lost dog or an injured bird, there will be opportunities to put your kindness on display for your child.  Do what you can to help animals, and involve your child as it is safe and viable.  Found a lost dog?  Maybe don’t let your child play with the unknown Fido, but let her/him come along for the ride to the shelter. Showing your child that you don’t turn your back on others in need will teach them not to either.compassionate children 3
  3. Learn More – It’s ok to be intentional and obvious about your desire to teach your child about kindness.  You can do this by reading age-appropriate books together about human rights, visiting a civil rights museum, or watching documentaries/movies on social issues.  You can also be explicit with your child about why you make the decisions you make.  It’s ok to tell a child you don’t eat meat because you don’t want to hurt animals, or that you drive an electric car because you’re concerned about pollution.  Just remember to use your judgment on how to keep it appropriate for your child’s age. Your four-year-old probably doesn’t need gory details on genocide or sex trafficking, but they can learn about recycling and the impact of their decisions on helping wildlife.  
  4. Donate Together –  Most adults already make some sort of charitable donations.  Why not involve your children in these decisions? You can engage your kids by giving them an “allowance” specifically reserved for donations and helping them to research places where they might want to give.  This will teach them the importance of giving back as well as how to make informed giving decisions.
  5. Encourage Activism – Encourage your child to think outside the box and develop their own methods of activism. Maybe they will want to host their own fundraiser for a local nonprofit, or maybe they’ll want to write a letter to the President – whatever your child’s ideas are to help, encourage them to pursue it.  If they can take ownership over their activism, they are well on their way to becoming compassionate children. 

Ultimately, your children are likely to treat others similarly to the way they see you treat others.  If you want compassionate children who don’t take glee in bashing in others’ heads, then be compassionate yourself.  When you pass a homeless person on the street, don’t ignore them.  Look them in the eye and say hello!  When you see a squirrel in the street, slow down to allow the squirrel to return to safety.

It’s never too soon to start teaching compassion.  Follow these tips, and you are sure to raise an empathetic and empowered child who can make the world a more caring place for generations to come.