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Growing a Generation of Compassionate Adults

Starting with Compassionate Kids

Growing a Generation of Compassionate Adults

by Vicki Garlock

I have three treasures that I hold and cherish: One is called “compassion” … With compassion, one is able to be brave.

From the Tao Te Ching, Chapter 67 (Mabry translation)


Compassion has become quite the buzzword of late. The Dalai Lama talks about compassion, of course. That’s to be expected. But when TV stars, musicians, authors, scientists, and even politicians (including Donald Trump) mention compassion, the word begins to morph into a movement. This current global interest in compassion is commendable, but it’s not exactly new. As the Tao Te Ching suggests, compassion as a guiding principle has been around for at least a couple of millennia. What is new is the growing emphasis on encouraging, endorsing, and explicitly teaching compassion to kids.


Photo:    Pixabay

Photo: Pixabay

Although “compassion” generally denotes a deep appreciation for the suffering of others, when it comes to kids, “kindness” often occupies the front-row seat. Colorful classroom posters offer daily reminders with phrases like “Kindness is the New Cool,” “A Kind Word is Never Wasted,” and “Throw Kindness around Like Confetti.” And for those wishing to express themselves in a slightly smaller way, there are refrigerator magnets espousing similar sentiments, with “Scatter Kindness,” “Kindness Changes Everything,” and the famous Dalai Lama quote, “My Religion is Kindness.”

Many schools also promote kindness and compassion with dedicated spaces. A prominent example is the “Buddy Bench.” Five years ago, Christian Bucks, an elementary school student in York, Pennsylvania brought the Buddy Bench concept to his school after seeing one in Germany. The idea is that kids who feel lonely or isolated can sit on the bench, indicating to their classmates that they need a friend. Christian became an overnight media sensation and, as of today, thousands of Buddy Benches have been installed at schools in all 50 states and more than 12 countries. The benches are now commercially available, and the concept has been emulated with things like the Compassion Corner, installed several years ago at a Winston-Salem school.


The compassion-for-kids movement has intensified as more and more schools adopt curricula designed to curb bullying and inspire kindness. Educators have a range of options, including Second Step’s Bullying Prevention Unit, Dr. Beane’s Bullying Prevention Program, and Al’s Pals: Kids Making Healthy Choices series. These products not only teach kids how to recognize bullying, they also help build their skills in self-control, emotional regulation, and peace-making. The list is now extensive enough to cover the entire period of child development, from preschool through high school.

Products with kindness/compassion (instead of bullying) at their core are also becoming increasingly popular. For example, the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has developed a compassion-focused preschool program called the Kindness Curriculum. Megan Murphy, founder of the Kindness Rocks Project, has developed a set of kindness-based lessons geared to kids in preschool through third grade. And “Kindness” was the theme of the 47th season of Sesame Street, which aired in the spring of 2017. All of these programs lift up the idea that pro-social behavior, mindfulness, and empathy can be taught, and they can be taught to kids at a very young age.

In addition to curricular materials, many age-appropriate books are available for both teachers and care-givers. Some of them, like Moody Cow Learns Compassion (Wisdom Publications, 2012), Misguided Katy: Learning Compassion (Father & Son Publishing, 2018), and Listening with My Heart (Take Heart Press, 2017) specifically unpack the concept of compassion. Others, like Be Kind (Roaring Book Press, 2018), The Jelly Donut Difference (Cardinal Rule Press, 2017), and the award-winning Each Kindness (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2012) focus more on kindness.


2014 Random Acts of Kindness Challenge Winner, a 1st-gade class in Fresno, CA

Of course, talking about compassion/kindness gets us only so far. As the bumper sticker clearly states: Actions Speak Louder than Words. Clearly, the race is on to get kids actively involved in spreading the love. For example, the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation offers guidelines for starting a Kindness Club (and if you sometimes despair at the state of our world, check out their super-inspiring kid videos). Several teaching blogs, like Teachers Pay Teachers and the ClassDojo Blog, also offer age-appropriate ideas, tips, and worksheets to help bring compassion to life.

Community service projects are also gaining steam across the spectrum. A quick internet search offers creative, budget-friendly ideas for families, faith-based communities, and civic groups looking to put their best intentions into practice. Several organizations, like the Pollination Project, even offer small seed grants to people around the globe, including classroom teachers and youth, who are committed to making the world a more sustainable, peaceful, and compassionate place.

Does it Work?

Photo:    Max Pixel

Photo: Max Pixel

Nearly everyone is quick to assert that their program, curriculum, or club will produce healthy, mindful, self-regulated kids, who presumably will grow into compassionate adults. While such declarations seem reasonable, scientists are beginning to conduct research to support such claims. For example, Lisa Flock, a clinical psychologist, studied the effects of the 12-week Kindness Curriculum with a group of 68 preschoolers. She found that kids who participated in the curriculum showed greater improvements in social competence and received higher report card grades in areas like socio-emotional development. Flock also found that the greatest gains were observed in the subset of kids who initially scored lower on measures of social competence and executive functioning. It remains to be seen if such effects last, in any measurable way, over the course of development.

Neuroscience is also playing an important role in furthering our understanding of compassion. Using brain imaging techniques, researchers have now identified key brain areas involved in both the emotional and behavioral aspects of compassion. Research is now focused on how different types of training might affect the activity and neurochemistry of this so-called compassion network. While brain imaging studies are performed much less frequently on children, this avenue of research will almost certainly offer important information about the effectiveness of various compassion-training methods.


Compassion Corner installed at Petree Elementary School, Winston-Salem, NC in 2015 – Photo: Petree Elementary School

Compassion Corner installed at Petree Elementary School, Winston-Salem, NC in 2015 – Photo: Petree Elementary School

Most interfaith folks are well-aware that compassion – often characterized as the Golden Rule – shows up in most world religions. Happily, those principles have now expanded well beyond the confines of faith. In fact, they are increasingly becoming embedded in the moral fiber of our global culture. Promoting, understanding and cultivating compassion are always good practices, even for adults. But instilling the kindness/compassion ethic in our children provides us with the much-needed hope that the next generation will be even better at living into these ideals than we are today.

Header Photo: Department of Defense