Our Savior overflows with compassion, so as families of faith we want to raise compassionate children. In an effort to make the abstract more tangible, I spoke with three families. Each family has a unique perspective on raising compassionate kids based on the ages of their children, and yet there is a common thread. Read on for practical ideas and inspiration for your own family.
Meet the Ahnfeldts from Colorado
Meet Deb and Erin Ahnfeldt from Colorado Springs, Colorado. Erin is a high school English teacher, and Deb is also a professional educator. These parents are passionate about passing on their faith to the next generation: Hope, 15; David, 14; and Joy, 11. (*Ahnfeldt family is featured in the image at top of post*)
Why is it important to raise compassionate kids?
Erin: The world is watching. The world wants to see if this Jesus thing is real. The most powerful way you can show Jesus is through love. When people see compassion in kids who are normally self-centered, when people see kids looking beyond themselves and caring about someone else, that gives validity to who Jesus is.
Deb: When our kids see unfair circumstances and injustice in the world, they see it breaks God’s heart. And when they get to the point where it also breaks their hearts, I believe they see Jesus more clearly. Beyond our kids’ little worlds, there are so many people who need Jesus’ love. God wants us to love them. Compassionate children will do just that, but first they need to see the people and their need in order to respond as Jesus would.
How do you help them do this?
Deb: Every year we go on an international mission trip. It’s valuable for our children to be exposed to people who are different than they are in order to broaden their perspectives and understand that the world doesn’t revolve around them.
Erin: We are also sensitive to what’s going on in our everyday life. Even when the kids were little, we would engage the homeless. We’d bring them food or take them to McDonald’s. We wanted to help our kids understand that these people want to be seen. Deb and I want our kids to notice everyone -- as Jesus would notice them.
How have you seen your children act compassionately?
Deb: Sometimes at dinner we ask, “How did you bless others today?” One night David shared how he saw a kid eating lunch alone in the cafeteria. David suggested that his friends go meet this boy who was sitting all by himself.
It takes a lot of courage to tell your friends, OK. We’re moving from our comfortable place, and we’re going to sit with this kid who we don’t know at all. And we’re going to talk with him. As a family, we talk about how we can love others and notice people or hear their stories. It’s important that our kids know everyone’s lives are not perfect.
Meet the Halls from Florida
Meet Sarah and Jon Hall from Tallahassee, Florida. Jon is a passionate preacher of the gospel who helped plant the church Incarnation Tallahassee. Their two children, ages 12 and 10, hosted a Compassion Sunday with the help of friends! Sarah shares how they are finding ways to pass their faith to the next generation.
What do you do to raise compassionate kids?
Sarah: I don’t think we’ve actually been super intentional about talking with them about compassion. If anything, they’ve watched us exercise compassion toward other people.
For example, we live near a park where homeless folks often sleep. One night, a woman came to our front door and said, “My boyfriend just beat me up. Can I use your phone to call the police?” I was helping the kids get ready for bed, and my husband, Jon, invited her straight into the house, handed her his phone and started heating up leftovers and poured her something to drink.
My initial reaction was, Oh, gosh! Is that boyfriend going to follow her here?? I’m cautious and risk averse. I thought our kids would be overwhelmed, and I was tempted to keep them away from the whole situation. But they went out to the kitchen and heard the conversation as the police came to collect her story. They were very attentive to her. They noticed her distress and wanted to help by offering her a cookie and a sweater -- such an authentic response.
What does it look like for your daughter to be compassionate as a fifth grader?
Sarah: She is extremely observant about her friends and how they feel about things. She wonders why some of her peers are cruel and exclusive. Girls her age often put other people down or tease others on the playground.
Often when my daughter and I talk we process feelings and help her shape a vocabulary. How did the person respond to teasing? How do you think she is feeling? What about the girl who did the teasing? Is she having a hard time? What could we do to encourage her? We talk about the importance of entering into other people’s experiences rather than just writing people off -- something all too common for a fifth grader!
How have you noticed your children acting compassionately?
Sarah: There’s a concept I’ve been reading about in the last couple of years. It’s called a prompt. It is a tangible item in front of you that triggers an action you’ve been intending to do but haven’t made time to do it.
The Compassion Gift Catalog serves as a kind of prompt for our family. Our kids want to be empathetic, but it’s hard to know what to do. When we received the gift catalog last year, they quickly set up a lemonade stand to make money so they could choose a gift.
It’s much more concrete and visceral than, for example, giving an offering to missionaries -- especially for kids. Through the gift catalog they can buy a cow or a goat to help a family generate income. Or they can purchase sewing or baking lessons for teenagers to learn a skill that gives them a vocation. They can picture exactly how their sacrifice is blessing another child.
Meet the Custers from Colorado
Meet LeAnn and Dougg Custer from Colorado Springs, Colorado. As global church planters, they raised their now-adult children in Austria: Katrina, 39; Andi, 34; Scott, 32. From the Custers, we can gain insight on the long-term effects of intentionality. LeAnn shares what her children remember about learning compassion at home.
What does compassionate living look like for your adult children today?
LeAnn: As a child, Katrina remembers us opening our home to visiting missionaries and those who needed a temporary place to stay. She remembers us responding to a single mother and her children by providing temporary housing until stability was reestablished.
Now a professional educator at a Christian academy in Germany, Katrina provides leadership for her seventh grade students as they interact with young Syrian refugees on a weekly basis. Their platform of kindness and acceptance opens the door to share God’s love and salvation. Katrina is intentional to keep her students aware of the physical and spiritual needs of those around them, and the seventh grade class always has a fundraiser for a project of compassion.
Our son, Andi, serves as an associate pastor in Minnesota. He recalls our acts of compassion during the sanctions against Yugoslavia in the 1990s. We collected and delivered medicines, clothes and food to Serbian Christians in Yugoslavia. Today Andi encourages the church’s youth to look beyond themselves to meet needs of those around them. He initiates educational and contextual experiences to help the church youth understand the challenges of poverty, and he provides opportunities for them to put faith principles into action.
Scott remembers bread-and-broth dinners we had once a month when he was young. It gave him an idea of how children in poverty live. Today Scott is a pastor in Hawaii. Recently he partnered with Compassion to enhance the church’s missional scope. Although the church is passionate to reconcile people to God, Scott sensed they needed to be more intentional about being agents of humanitarian reconciliation as compassionate global citizens. Child sponsorship is one way families can model compassion to the next generation.
What advice do you have for parents to cultivate compassionate kids?
LeAnn: Parents who want to raise compassionate children need to be intentional to expose them to people who are different than their family. This could look like interacting with others of a different economic class, visiting with individuals with linguistic and cultural diversities, or understanding a person’s physical handicap and responding with sensitivity and kindness. Despite dissimilarities, everyone is created in God’s image and desires community, acceptance and respect.
Acknowledging the beauty of these differences without judgment is an attribute that is sometimes lacking in today’s culture. In a world with many entitled people, we may need to ask God to help us slow down and take time to see people as God sees them: created in His image but burdened by life’s stresses and displaced passions – and needing God’s tender, loving kindness through a shared meal, a temporary place to stay, or simply a warm jacket on a cold day.
We hope these three families have inspired you!
*All images are from Compassion International.*