Can you really teach compassion? New study says yes.

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bully compassion

How can you teach a kid compassion?

I’ve had this discussion with my wife many times. Is there some experience or exercise you can expose kids (and adults) to on a regular basis? Is there something we can do or see? Can we volunteer at a shelter, take a trip to help build a bridge somewhere or bring food to elderly neighbors?

All these seem live viable options, but is there something else we can do, some daily practice that can literally install or bump up compassion? Turns out, breaking research from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison say yes!

Compassion can be taught and “installed” with meditation

Cultivating compassion and kindness through meditation affects brain regions that can make a person more empathetic to other peoples’ mental states, say .

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison claim:

Positive emotions such as loving-kindness and compassion can be learned in the same way as playing a musical instrument or being proficient in a sport. The scans revealed that brain circuits used to detect emotions and feelings were dramatically changed in subjects who had extensive experience practicing compassion meditation.

The research suggests that individuals – from children who may engage in bullying to people prone to recurring depression – and society in general could benefit from such meditative practices.

The study compared fMRIs of a group of 16 Tibetan monks who have practiced compassion meditation practice fro more than 10,000 hours and 16 age-matched controls with no previous training, who were taught compassion meditation two weeks before the study.

The control participants were asked first to concentrate on loved ones, wishing them well-being and freedom from suffering. After some training, they then were asked to generate such feelings toward all beings without thinking specifically about anyone.

After two-weeks, the fMRI scans revealed significant increased activity in the regions of the brain linked to emotion sharing and empathy.

Davidson added:

[The effect] which was much more noticeable in the expert meditators as opposed to the novices, was very powerful…People are not just stuck at their respective set points..We can take advantage of our brain’s plasticity and train it to enhance these qualities.”

The researchers are interested in teaching compassion meditation to kids, particularly as they approach adolescence, as a way to prevent bullying, aggression and violence.

Seems I may have at least part of my answer about teaching compassion to my daughter.

Now, of course, the challenge is to make the training a part of Club Penguin!

Here’s what I’d love to know from you guys. It’s so important to me to teach my daughter the importance of empathy and compassion. I’ve even thought about taking family vacations to volunteer at an orphanage in Peru, but I just don’t feel safe enough with a wife and young daughter in certain parts of the world where it seems the most kindness is needed.

So, help me brainstorm a bit. What kind of experiences can I offer, either as a family, or just get my daughter involved in that might help her continue to evolve into a kind, empathethic, compassionate grown-up?

Let’s see if we can come up with a nice list in the comments…

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23 responses

23 responses to “Can you really teach compassion? New study says yes.”

  1. Taking her along with you anytime you go to help someone else. be it move furniture, discuss an issue they need assistance with, deliver food to a sick friend, etc. Seeing you and your wife in action is a tremendous teaching.

  2. Aaron Cooper says:

    Great blog today Jonathan! As a psychologist, I’ve got an important suggestion, a daily practice for you and the kids that will go a long way toward teaching compassion and empathy:

    How to raise empathic/compassionate kids? Deliver empathy to your kids, every day!

    If the kids grow up receiving a heavy dose of empathy, they’ll feel it in their bones (and their neurons, too, hopefully) and be able to deliver it to others. It’s a tall order, I know. Few parents pull it off effectively (because few of us received it from our own parents, so we don’t know how…)

    Because empathy is so valuable in building solid and close relationships (which leads to happy lives), I have a few pages of “instruction” about how to deliver empathy to kids in my new book, “I Just Want My Kids To Be Happy! Why you shouldn’t say it, why you shouldn’t think it, what you should embrace instead.”

  3. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Corey – Great advice, start small, right!

    @ Aaron – So true, I guess it really starts with being empathetic and compassionate toward them and letting that serve as their main example. Thanks for the insight!

  4. Tzaddi says:

    Children are naturally empathetic, I think. Though maybe they need this nature to be guided a little bit, to notice and think about things that hadn’t occurred to them.

    I’m sure there are opportunities to help in your own area, and I think these could be just as effective as helping “greater” need somewhere else in the world. It’s good to feel like you’re making a difference locally too.

    What about working at (or visiting if she’s too young) a Habitat for Humanity project, a soup kitchen, a clean up day for a stream or beach, animal rescue shelter…

    My sister has her kids choose some of their toys to give to kids in need. That’s a simple act that can involve much conversation & empathy.

  5. Jonathan Fields says:

    @ Tzaddi – I like to think we all start from a place of empathy and compassion, though some people really make me question that.

    Even so, the challenge is trying to preserve and grow these qualities when you kid is out in a world that tends to value other qualities far more. Starting close to home is a great idea. I actually have a friend who runs projects for Habitat For Humanity, I’ll ask about having kids present and see what he says.

  6. Shareen says:

    In our society we tend to break the village circle of aging and death. Old people are forgotten and thrown away in many cases. Look for a senior center or assisted living home where the seniors are for the most part physically healthy and mentally with it and “adopt” one of them. Have your family spend time with them weekly or daily if you can, I think this is one area of compassion that goes a long way for all involved. There seems to be a natural connection between kids and old people that can be grown.
    On another note, I use to tell my sons to “be nice” but I’ve changed that to “show respect, and treat kindly.”
    Mostly I changed because I wanted to switch from ‘a state of being’ to actions and behaviors I’d like them to think about and choose before they act.
    My oldest asked me the difference between being nice and being kind.
    I looked up nice in the dictionary and the first definition was “difficult to please” followed by “discriminatory, meticulous” then by “ignorant and foolishly attractive” the last definition was “aggreable, pleasant, delightful”. I think I will be more careful in using that word lightly.
    I also looked up kind. It was tenderhearted and generous.

  7. Shareen says:

    I also agree whole-heartedly with Tzaddi. We have a tremendous arena of hurts and needs, often in our own backyards. From homeless, to elderly, to run-away children, abused women, abused children. I don’t think you have to look far to find a place to show respect and treat kindly.
    One of the perhaps most simple things anyone can do is make eye-contact with people you pass on the street, and smile.
    I do think there are even several organizations specializing in children who help others.
    I know one of our local schools had teh kids come up with three prejects for the year to do to help others in our community. It was amazing what they accomplished.

  8. Nicole says:

    You do not necessarily have to teach it, you just have to show it and encourage it when you see it. Children are inclined to be loving, it’s what they are born to be until we show them otherwise.

  9. Kris says:

    I have to second Tzaddi’s suggestion about taking your daughter to volunteer at a local soup kitchen. I volunteered with a group of friends when I was in my early teens, and it was an eye-opening experience. It would provide her with lasting lessons about helping others and wouldn’t require a visit to a more dangerous location. When I volunteered, there were many families that visited the soup kitchen for meals, so your daughter would also gain experience in helping kids her own age who are less fortunate.

    If your daughter likes animals, animal shelters are nearly always looking for volunteers. Some of them offer programs specifically for younger volunteers.

  10. Ash Wills says:


    I agree with the above suggestions. They are all wonderful and inspiring me into taking some action personally speaking!

    I once heard a wise, loving & compassionate man say;

    “If you desire for your kids to be spiritually oriented, surround them with beauty in all of it’s forms and expressions as much as you possibly can”
    Dr. David R. Hawkins – The Discovery of the Presence of God

    Even if you are not religious perhaps talking about Jesus and his principles

    “Love thy neighbour as they self” is an example

    Perhaps if they ever judge or condemn someone do not indulge them with attention, encourage them to accept another person’s decision with Socrates dictum;

    “Man intrinsically is incapable of discerning essence from perception. Man intrinsically chooses the good. Everyone is choosing what they consider to be the good at the time.”

    If people knew better, they’d choose better, it cannot be otherwise. So lessons like this can be valuable.

    I really adore these articles by Erin Pavlina;

    Finally, I have found this incredibly powerful ‘Compassion’ formula which was created by Stephane Hemon of ideaGasms.

    You can download the free ebook at this link (newsletter subscription required);

    and I cannot recommend it highly enough…SERIOUSLY!

    The basic steps are;

    1. Identify the problem
    2. Roles – How did you invite this into your life
    – See it through your eyes
    – Through the other person’s eyes
    – Through a neutral observer’s eyes
    3. Practical Lessons
    4. ‘The World is Your Mirror’
    This involves taking responsibility and accountability for your involvement and really walking a path of inner inquiry. It’s tough but so worth it. e.g. someone gossip’s about yourself, then you look at your own life and realize you gossip about people too.
    5. Releasing Blame
    When the inherent lessons are revealed and you can get on with your day having accepted it all. Otherwise rinse-repeat

    This formula helps rid any ‘victimhood’ mentality which is like a plague in society currently.

    Thank you for reading this far, and God Bless you for having the conscious awareness to even want to help your children and family in this way. Fantastic parenting indeed 🙂



    P.S. Take them with you if you donate blood at all!

  11. One of my most favorite small-child experiences was to get very quiet in a place, close our eyes, and imagine being able to hear how every little thing related to every other little thing in its own way, and then to notice what ideas came floating by, if there were any. The best places to do that were sitting with our hands in the grass of the back yard, or sitting on a beach at at low tide. You can almost hear the sand breathe

    It was so very peaceful and curious-making. If I could bottle that, I’d share!

  12. Nickey says:

    I used to take my daughters to serve Thanksgiving Dinner at church which was free to everyone, and most of the people that came were in real need of a meal. I wish I would have taken the trek to the City with my daughters to involve them in helping the homeless – giving out food, clothing, blankets – anything to help people who really needed compassion. And maybe they would have grown up to do something to help our society solve the homeless crisis.

  13. Jonathan,

    Have a look at this YouTube video of an 8-year-old champion speed stacker, who learned how to meditate with his dog.

    I know it sounds crazy! My point is that children can learn compassion for their animal friends (by meditating with them), and extend that learning to their relationships with humans.

  14. Lisa Gates says:

    Great post, great inquiry–thank you.

    One discovery I made with my son (who’s now 11) was to stop, honor, and name his feelings as they were occurring. So let’s say he’s 4 years old and we’re on our way out the door in a hurry, and my son is pitching a fit about his untied shoelaces. Rather than rush him into the car and scream at him for making me late, I just stop. And notice. And then say, “oh my, those are some pretty strong feelings your having. Lots of tears and frustration…Yes, it’s frustrating to not be able to tie your shoes…can I help you with that, or do you want to try it again?”

    The time it takes to name and model and empathize so far exceeds being late for anything.

    2 cents!

  15. Cath Lawson says:

    This is good news. It would be nice if they would make this teaching mandatory for all school children.

    I just read a story on the news about a 15 year old boy who brutally murdered an innocent young woman because he didn’t like the way she looked.

  16. I think this is one of those things that kids pick up through parental example. Parental example and a puppy!

  17. […] Fields at Awake @ The Wheel thinks it is possible to teach compassion. Gee, I hope so. I’ve known a few people who could use […]

  18. Okay says:

    Everyone is making this way more complicated than it needs to be! Just be compassionate towards her and she’ll be compassionate towards others.

  19. Jenn says:

    Love this post (and love the daughter too!)

    I’ve got a two-part idea– how about taking her to visit a group of folks who are in need (elderly people who need visitors, or sick kids in a hospital, or shelter animals who need petting and/or cleaning, or helping out at a homeless shelter or residence for young mothers/their kids… etc). And *then* talking with her about some ways for her to continue to help them out, and then helping her to implement that plan.

    Perhaps older folks need new books in their library, or the sick kids or young mothers/kids need more toys to play with, or the shelter animals need old towels/blankets for their cages, etc. She could talk to her class or school about what she sees when she goes to volunteer, and tell them what’s needed in that location, and start a collection within her class/school (and perhaps your building/community, too). I’d imagine that going to deliver supplies that she helped to collect, and seeing the gratitude from the recipients first-hand, would go a long way towards helping her understand what compassion and empathy feel like.

  20. Lisa Wilder says:

    While an orphanage in Peru would certainly be a worthy cause, you don’t have to travel far from home to find a wide array of opportunities to volunteer with kids: – check out the link for a list of suggestions for random acts of kindness for kids

    It’s wonderful, Jonathan, that you’re thinking now about how to foster compassion in your daughter.

  21. […] and think. Use good judgement and have compassion for other’s […]

  22. Plozano76 says:

    As a Montessori pre-school teacher, I’ve found that the best way to “teach” compassion is to help children understand that we’re all inter-dependent and part of one big universe. Start with “small” things, like smelling a flower instead of picking it, saving a spider instead of squashing it, and offering help to people in your everyday life. Explain WHY… It’s an investment that will help your child transfer empathy from an unconscious to a conscious behavior.

    Yes, children are naturally compassionate and empathetic, but as they grow, it is important that these characteristics be made conscious so that they don’t become buried under the “what’s in it for me” crap that society shovels our way.

  23. axel g says:

    Compassion is such a great source of inspiration.

    I believe that everyone knows what’s right and wrong – it’s part of our make up +_+