09/30/2014 11:32 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Acts of Compassion Speak Louder than Words to Your Children

Developing the capacity for compassion and sharing is a huge challenge for young children. Because they are still in an egocentric stage of development, they lack the awareness of and empathy toward others necessary to see how not sharing impacts those around them. Yet, sharing, as an expression of compassion, is a message that your children must get.

For our family, we try to strike a balance in which we establish the expectation of sharing (i.e., encouraging and sometimes forcing sharing), yet also give our daughters permission to not share everything. We allow them to designate some of their possessions as "special" that they don't have to share with others. Of course, we encourage them to share everything, but the "special" category gives them the feeling that they have some things that are truly theirs. Also, at times when they don't want to share, we make a point to tell them that the best kind of generosity occurs when they don't want to share.

Eve and Darren believe that compassion arises from the realization that there are people in the world different from them. So, from their two children's earliest years, they exposed their kids to as much , racial, religious, age and socioeconomic diversity as possible. They live in a large and diverse city in a neighborhood of mixed ethnicity and explore every nook and cranny of the urban landscape, even poor areas in which they are a bit uncomfortable. Eve and Darren expose their children to every kind of international cuisine they can find (though, admittedly, every taste isn't always welcomed). They read books to their children that show them about other peoples, cultures, and religions. Once their children were old enough, the family took trips to India, China, Russia, and Africa.

Carly and Jake see compassion as starting close to home and expanding outward. They emphasize to their son and daughter that caring for each other is the foundation of their family and for compassion, kindness and generosity toward others. They establish clear expectations of how they wanted their family to treat each other and focused on activities that require cooperation. For example, they played games, worked on puzzles, and did household projects that can't be accomplished alone.

From this foundation of compassion with their family, Carly and Jake expanded their messages to their friends and neighbors. They built a strong network of like-minded people who shared the value of compassion. They and other parents in their network organized social activities and charitable work aimed at not only helping others outside their circle, but also those within. In recent months, Carly and Jake organized a Tom Sawyer house painting party for elderly neighbors who couldn't afford a new paint job. They, along with other parents in their group, organized a condolences card-writing event for a member of the group whose father had recently died. And Carly and the other moms and children in the group prepared several weeks of meals for a family whose mother had become seriously ill, requiring surgery and a lengthy convalescence.

One of the most interesting and courageous acts of compassion I have learned about first hand occurred during a recent visit to a Southern city with a large African-American population, high levels of poverty, and almost-uniform geographic racial segregation for a speaking event. The chaplain at the school at which I spoke, Randy, a Caucasian, had done considerable charitable work in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Five years ago, he decided that, for him to have the greatest impact on this struggling community, he, his wife, and three young children needed to move into the neighborhood. Needless to say, his wife was resistant, worried for the safety of her family. But seeing her husband's passion and determination, she steeled herself and agreed to the move. To their surprise, their family was welcomed into the neighborhood. In the five years since their move, they have never had any problems being one of only a few white families in the area. The chaplain's ability to effect positive change in the community has grown exponentially. And their children are not only seeing and hearing messages of compassion, but they are living a life immersed in compassion.

This blog post is excerpted from my third parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You (The Experiment Publishing, 2011).