How can you say you love God whom you cannot see while you despise your neighbor whom you can see?
-- 1 John 4:20
In his landmark book "The Moral Child: Nurturing Children's Natural Moral Growth" (Free Press, 1988), William Damon tells the story of a 2-year-old who, seeing another toddler crying, brought his mother over to soothe the sad child. Even though the crying child's mother was at hand, the compassionate kid wanted to offer a surefire remedy: his own mommy. This child may have to work on the details, but he was well on his way to developing a fine moral sense.
Empathy is the fundamental building block of the moral life. Jesus told the Pharisees that all of biblical morality can be captured in the saying, "Love God with your whole heart, mind, and soul, and your neighbor as yourself." There's no living out the second half of that commandment without a sense of connectivity and empathy for others. Don't hit. Don't steal. Why not? Possibly the first verbal moral lesson children receive is the gently posed question, "Well, how do you think you would like it if that were done to you?"
The key to navigating such basic, low-level moral issues requires a sense of compassion. And compassion means identifying, at least remotely, with those who would be hurt by our actions. It's only after mastering the fundamentals of empathy and compassion that our children will one day be able to master the more complex and difficult moral and ethical questions that will face them, questions about genetic engineering, global economic justice, and just what constitutes a legitimate deduction on their income tax.
But be careful. "How would you like it?" is a phrase that can be thrown in our kids' faces like a slap. Instead, use the question as an invitation to self-understanding and growth as a moral person in the world. If you make room for your own child's array of feelings (from the selfish to the selfless, the venal to the gloriously giving), your child will, over time, develop the capacity to imagine the plight and feelings of others with care and compassion.
How to foster empathy:
From early on, make it a clear expectation that sharing is part of living as a family as well as living in society. It may be tempting to try to avoid the minor conflicts that kids get into over whose turn it is to use a piece of sports equipment, a toy, or a bike. But this is valuable practice for later in life. When I was a camp counselor, I had the 16 kids from B Cabin come up with their own rules for how they would divvy up their 60 minutes each week on the trampoline. Though not without its challenges, this preparation exercise was possibly the most productive way to build a sense of fairness and mutual caring.
When reading books or watching TV with your children, stop and ask them to imagine themselves living as one of the characters in the story. Ask: "What would you do if you were there?"
When you see your child acting cruel or unkind, stop the action and review the situation together. It's easy for kids to be cruel to one another. They need our help to correct their "vision." They can only act cruelly if they don't see that we are all one, and that when one part of the Body of Christ is hurting, we all hurt.
Encourage your child to read biographies and lives of the saints. I remember my dad coming home from retreat with copies of Damien the Leper for us kids to read. I've still got my copy on my bookshelf at work. Here was a heroic story about a man who experienced the ultimate in compassion.
Talk about situations from your daily life that illustrate your own sense of empathy and compassion. Kids are all ears when you talk about the real stories of what goes on at work, in the neighborhood, in the extended family.
Review situations at your child's school that call for compassion. Talk about those times when a new kid arrives and feels lonely, when a kid "loses his lunch" in front of the whole class, when someone struggles with a school subject or is different from the other kids. Ask aloud, "I wonder what life is like for that kid right now?"
Recite the Prayer of Saint Francis ("Lord, make me an instrument of your peace...") regularly at meals or bedtime. This prayer captures the essence of compassionate living. Give a copy of the prayer to your child.