How to raise compassionate kids

Do unto your children what you would have your children do unto others.
Do unto your children what you would have your children do unto others. 

Raising kids who care - how volunteering helps develop children's compassion.

When Phil Crawley announced that he wanted to volunteer overseas with Australian Volunteers for International Development, his wife Allison was hesitant. “Foremost in my thinking was, ‘are we going to an okay place for our children?’” she says. “Our kids were nine and 11-years-old at the time and my principal concern was that we weren’t endangering them in any way.”

But far from endangering them, Allison believes the experience of living in the tiny Pacific nation of Kiribati for a year broadened her children’s confidence and increased their sense of compassion and empathy. “Life was unpredictable in many ways,” Allison says. “It wasn’t easy but both Jonathon and Rebecca [her children] learned a lot.”

In Australia, more than five million adults volunteer each year. In 2007, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that parents with dependent children are more likely to volunteer, and recent studies from the United States have shown that children whose parents volunteer are more likely to volunteer as adults. It is generally acknowledged that children who “give” are more likely to grow into compassionate, empathic and engaged individuals.

The benefits of family volunteering are numerous, and advocates say that volunteering with children is a great way to enact your family’s values, whether it be through helping people who have less than you do, caring for animals, or looking after the environment.

Kirsty Richardson from Earthwatch Australia, an international not for profit organisation, says Earthwatch provides a range of expeditions where children and their families can help with environmental and conservation issues, both in Australia and overseas. Kirsty says the expeditions are a great opportunity for children to experience the world in a different way. “It introduces them to animals they may never have been aware of,” she says. “They get engaged with hands-on learning that demonstrates how human changes can really impact our wildlife, especially the wildlife we barely know exists around us.” This exposure to unique animals and environments engenders compassion in children, Kirsty says, because through these experiences children learn to care about things other than themselves.

Volunteering shows children that there is a world beyond “me” and can help nurture the capacity for kindness that they are born with. Volunteering or helping doesn’t necessarily need to be as structured or organised as living in another country or going on formal expeditions. Parents can develop their children’s compassion by encouraging them to help people, animals or the environment in small ways.

Parents as role models

Children look to their parents as role models and if parents lead a life that values helpfulness and kindness to others, children will naturally see compassion in action. When children are young they tend to see the larger acts of compassion that adults engage in, such as volunteering time to help others in need, or cooking a meal for an elderly relative or friend. As they grow older, children are able to transfer what they have seen adults do for others to what they can do for others. A popular variation on the old saying is, Do unto your children what you would have your children do unto others.

Everything helps


Not everyone has the inclination or means to volunteer overseas or even for a prolonged period of time. However, by volunteering your time, however little you have, even to help someone pickup a dropped item or to hold open a door for someone, shows your children that acts of compassion can be small or large and given to strangers or friends.

Ways to help from home

You don’t necessarily need to leave your neighbourhood to volunteer. Involving your children in packing up clothes that they no longer wear or toys they no longer play with to donate to charity is a simple way of promoting compassion for others. In this sense compassion fosters other essential values, such as generosity and kindness.


Allison Crawley says she is proud of the compassion her two children showed while they were living in Kiribati.  “My kids became very aware that the people around us didn’t have much money,” she says, “but they never judged them for being less well off than us.”

When the family returned home in January this year Allison says she was touched by the depth of Jonathon’s care for his new friends in Kiribati. “My children had a year’s worth of pocket money waiting when we came home,” Allison says. “Jonathon told me that he wanted to give all his money to one of his friends who really had very little.” Of her time there, Rebecca says, “I don’t want as many things now. I seem rich and I have a lot compared to them.”

Jonathon and Rebecca seem more confident after their experiences volunteering in Kiribati, something that friends and family have also commented on. “We are extremely glad we took them,” Allison says. “It was a worthwhile thing to experience as a family.” Jonathon says one of his biggest lessons was learning to put himself in someone else’s shoes. “It doesn’t matter if you are different,” he says. “It just matters that you have a good inside.” 

National Volunteer Week runs from 13 – 19 May 2013.

For more information about formalised volunteering experiences with children: