The Character Construction Site:


Compassion is a powerful emotion that halts violent and cruel behavior and urges us to treat others kindly.  Over the past decade, our kids have been bombarded with television, movies, music, video, arcade games and the Internet content that emphasize violence, nastiness, and cruelty.  This continual barrage of cruel images can stifle your child’s capacity for compassion.  Either you work to maintain and develop compassion in your kids, or these influences will do the opposite.  (Adapted from Borba, Building Moral Intelligence, Jossey-Bass, 2002,

Definition of Compassion
Learning to feel with and for others.  Empathy, tolerance, brotherhood.  Sensitivity to needs in people and situations. 

Praise.  Reinforce - and cause repetition of - unselfish behavior.  When a child shares, or gives, or sees and responds to needs in another, praise him, pick him up and hug him, and point out what he’s just done to anyone else who is around. 

Give responsibility.  A recent Harvard study pointed up an interesting connection between how much responsibility children were given and their tendencies to be altruistic and extra-centered. 

Teach by example and active listening.  Show children the attitude of empathy and the kinds of sensitivity that you want them to mirror.  Instead of the normal parental tendencies of directing, managing and interrogating children, try to really hear what children say.  Try to make your own listening and caring more obvious.

Say, “I’m sorry.” Whenever you have made a mistake or misjudgment or even been a little insensitive to a child’s needs (through your own busy-ness, preoccupation, etc.), go to the child and say you’re sorry for not being more in tune and sensitive to what they were worried about or needed. 

Make an effort to tell your children how the things they do make you feel.
This will help your children be more aware of your feelings and be more sensitive toward them. 

Remember that unselfishness does not come naturally. Try to maintain your patience, as there is no quick fix for learning to be unselfish.  It is a process that takes thinking and practicing and a certain amount of maturity to develop.  

Family Activities


The “Big E” Award
As with all award methods, give recurrent, noticeable, lasting praise.  At Sunday dinner, or whatever time you have specified for awards, say, “Who’s in the running for the Big E award?”  E stands for empathy, and each family member should think through the week just passed and try to come up with incidents when he noticed how someone else felt and sympathized enough to do or say something to help someone or at least acknowledge what he noticed. 

Together memorize G.K.Chesterton’s statement: “Love of one’s neighbor is the only door out of the dungeon of self.”  Discuss this with the children, pointing out why selfishness and self-centeredness is a dungeon.

The Nose Watching Game
This game trains children to be aware of other people.  While out in public, see how many different kinds of noses you can observe.  Later discuss all of the different kinds of noses and how no two are alike.

The Looking-and-Listening-for-Needs Game
This can help children begin focusing the seeing and listening skills on opportunities for service.  Tell the children that this game is an extension of the nose-watching game.  Only this time we’ll be looking not at people’s noses but at their needs.  Explain that needs are a lot harder to see than noses.  To see needs, you have to look hard and listen hard.  Someone might be feeling just a little discouraged and need some encouragement, or a little insecure and need a compliment.  Or someone might feel left out and need a friend, or useless and need to be asked for help.  Or there might be more obvious needs like a hungry child or a lonely older person. 

Select a day for the game when you can be together for dinner.  During the day, keep track of how many needs you can notice and identify.  Take notes.  At dinner that night give reports on those notes and discuss and compare.

The Secret-Buddies Game
This game helps children shift their attention to another family member and experience the satisfaction of doing things for that person anonymously.  Put each family member’s name (including parents’) in a hat and let each person draw a name secretly.  Spend the week playing “secret buddies”, during which each person tries to find little things he or she can do for his buddy anonymously (from carefully anonymous notes, compliments, and gifts, to fixing or cleaning secretly).  Discuss at the end of the week.

The “Whose Problem?” Verbal Exercise
This will help children react less to the cruelty of other children and be more careful of being cruel themselves.  Whenever an example or instance of teasing or meanness or peer abuse comes to your attention, take the opportunity to explain that children who behave in such ways almost always do so because they are mistreated by someone else or because they feel insecure.  Get in the habit of asking, “Why do you think he did that?” or “Whose problem is that?”  Explore possibilities.  (Maybe his parents are unkind to him.  Maybe his big brother picks on him.  Maybe he’s not doing well in school and needs to prove himself by showing he’s bigger or stronger.)  Discuss possibilities in a sensitive, empathetic way. 

“Create Your Own”
Encourage children to make their own greeting cards, writing prose or poetry to sensitively express how they feel about another person.  Praise their every attempt. 

The Adjective Game
This game assists children in defining their feelings and increases their ability to verbalize their feelings.  Try to list one hundred feeling words such as happy, mad, sad and so on.  Explain that a good vocabulary helps us figure out our feelings and express them.  Hang the list in a visible place and invite family members to add to it. 

Junior High

Discuss Emerson’s quote on selfishness and self-centeredness.  “See how the masses of men worry themselves into nameless graves while here and there, a great unselfish soul forgets himself into immortality.”

Journals and Poetry
Be sure a child has a journal or diary.  Keep one yourself.  Encourage the expression of feelings.  Teach children to begin many sentences in their journal with I feel…Make poetry a common practice in your family.  Poetry is a great teacher as well as expresser of sensitive feelings. 

The Mirror-Window Lesson
This can help adolescents appreciate the difference between self-centeredness and extra-centeredness.  Try to get a piece of one-way glass mirror from one side, window from other).  If you can’t find one, a plain piece of glass will do.  Point out that when it is dark behind the glass, it is a mirror - all you see in it is yourself.  When it is light behind it, you see through it-you see other people and not your own reflection.  Point out to children that life is much the same.  When our minds are dark and self-centered, we only see ourselves.  In this mode we are always unhappy and self-conscious.  But when we light up and look at other people-trying to listen, trying to see their needs, and so on - we “lose ourselves” and quit worrying about ourselves and feeling self-conscious. 

Three Daily Priorities-The Three 5’s
Help children stop and think about three priorities for a few moments each day (school, self, and service). 

  1. The most important thing they can do that day for school (study for a test, complete an assignment).
  2. The most important thing they can do for themselves that day (eat well, rest, etc.).
  3. The most important thing they can do for someone else that day (help a sibling, parent or friend with something, be nice to an unpopular person at school, pay a particular person a compliment).

Look for opportunities to praise.

The Listen-Paraphrase-and-Add-Feeling Game
This is a listening game.  One family member asks another what happened to him that day.  The second person tells some experience, and the first person repeats back or paraphrases the experience, visualizing it as though it had happened to him.  He then indicates how he thinks the other person felt.  Kids enjoy this once they get the hang of it.  There is no better training for the development of real concern. 

Sponsor a Child in an Undeveloped Country
This gives children the chance to serve others who are both very different and very far away from themselves.  There is enjoyment and benefit in having your children correspond directly with the child.

These exercises were excerpted and adapted with the authors’ permission from Teaching Your Children Values by Linda and Richard Eyre, Simon and Schuster, Fireside, 1993.  For more information on their tapes, books and Homebase organization call 801.581.0112.  This is an excellent book with a twelve-month values plan.

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