Kids who learn to love their neighbors as a routine part of family life have the best opportunity to know God as adults.
Research has shown that as children develop the ability to understand the feelings, needs, and concerns of others that they become more able to play nicely with each other. They are more likely to grow into productive, caring, and responsible adults. “Empathy … is one of the most critical competencies for cognitive and social development,” one research writes. “All psychological development may be described as a progressive loss of egocentrism and an increase in ability to take wider and more complex perspectives,” says another.
These lessons are basic human ones. Our little activists ought to show compassion to their brothers and sisters, their friends and peers, as well as their neighbors close to home and around the world.
Learning to love our neighbors is directly related to learning to love God. Christian professors Catherine Stonehouse and Scottie May spent years researching and interviewing children in Sunday school and worship settings. They sought to better understand how they came to know God and what they thought about it. It became clear that a heart that loved God was also a compassionate heart.
“The apostle Paul names God as ‘the Father of compassion,’” Stonehouse and May write in Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey. “Twenty-first century children also need to grasp the wonder of God’s gracious, compassionate love.” Our children are more likely to love a God who they see as caring for them and meeting their own needs in the same way that they learn to love their neighbors and reach out in compassion to them. Stonehouse and May argue that our churches and we as parents need to be nurturing compassion in our children.
Compassion requires the ability to understand how someone else feels and act in ways that might alleviate their pain. “In learning how to manage their emotional outbursts and comfort themselves when frustrated, anxious, or fearful, children come to understand how to offer comfort and support to others.” This is an essential element in maturation that begins with interaction with family members. Neurologists have found that these daily examples of parents providing love—and even discipline—to their children literally create brain patterns that allow for children to feel compassion themselves.
This is essential to growth in faith. “Service involvement,” writes Diana Garland, “appears to be more powerful than Sunday school, Bible study, or participation in worship” in the development of young people’s faith. This is the case whether the service is done through the church or the family. “In fact,” Garland says, “the small acts of kindness of daily family life are probably most significant, showing as they do that caring is not terribly difficult or exceptional but can be a natural part of life.”
It ought to be so natural, says one researcher, that for acts of compassion to become a lifetime habit for children, they must happen within the family setting at least once per week. Such acts may simply involve prayer for the owner of a broken down car on the side of the highway during a family road trip. Stonehouse and May write that it is most important for children to be engaged in compassion with their parents.
This may be an essential ingredient to raising children who are resistant to the “gimme, gimme” culture of consumption in which we are raising them. “It takes intentional vigilance on the part of parents and churches to counter this message, “Stonehouse and May write. “Material affluence can bring poverty of spirit if we are not followers of Jesus marked by hearts of compassion.