Compassion isn’t something that comes naturally to kids. Just like sharing toys, it’s a learned behaviour, and the earlier kids learn it, the more caring they’ll be, not only in their formative years, but also as adults.

How do you teach kids to have compassion? As director of Chai Lifeline Canada, an organization that helps support families with children who suffer from serious illnesses, I frequently get asked this question. Here are three effective steps I have found to be helpful.

1. Build gratitude.

In order for kids to be compassionate, they must first learn to be grateful. A child who is aware of all the wonderful things in his life can recognize when someone else is lacking, and can then begin to develop empathy. In our world-of-plenty western culture, it can be difficult for kids to realize just how blessed they are. It’s up to parents to have regular conversations with their children early on to reinforce grateful thoughts and behaviour. Start by talking with your kids about what gratitude is, why it’s important and the role it plays in their lives — and present the concept of honouring parents as a perfect example.

Children need to be aware of the importance of being grateful to their parents for giving them life and taking care of all their needs. They should then be taught to show their appreciation — whether by helping with household chores, co-operating with their parents, or simply expressing thanks. Showing gratitude in this fundamental area of their life will ultimately spill over into all other areas.

2. Make it a family affair.

Kids learn best by doing, so find ways to demonstrate compassion as early as possible within your own family. Have older siblings or cousins help younger family members with homework, getting dressed or preparing breakfast, for example. Take your kids to visit sick friends or relatives, or grandparents living in a nursing home. If a family member is feeling under the weather, discuss how your kids can help them — from taking them meals in bed, to providing anything else they need. If feasible, consider getting a pet, no matter what kind. Even a pet fish can effectively teach kids compassion as they come to realize that the welfare of another being is in their hands. Compassion comes from a place of inequality, and the goal is for kids to appreciate all that they have and understand that there are those less fortunate who can use their help.

3. Look to the community.

With the concepts of gratitude and compassion firmly in place, it’s time to reach out beyond the family. Sit down with your kids and reflect on your own community to identify together where there are people who could use help. Perhaps there’s someone at school without a lunch, with whom your child can share a sandwich or snack, or another who can’t afford skates and would appreciate your child’s hand-me-downs. Maybe your local food bank or soup kitchen could use your family’s help from time to time, or the homeless person you pass daily on the way to school would appreciate a bagged lunch made by your child.

Consider incorporating charitable efforts into your kids’ lives through activities such as donating profits from lemonade stands, or a toy from their birthday gifts, to kids who are less fortunate. Organizations such as Chai Lifeline Canada have programs to help with this outreach, including sharing a birthday or special day with a child suffering from an illness, and putting together packages for children spending time in the hospital.

Open dialogue …

Throughout this process, the key is to continue having open dialogue about compassion with your kids and providing them with opportunities to practise it. At the end of the day, you will notice that not only will your children make others feel better, but they’ll also feel better about themselves.