How we can teach kids compassion

Nine-year-old Ava Sendelbach’s little brother Joey and little sister Sophia have been receiving occupational therapy services at Easter Seals DuPage and the Fox Valley region since they were 3 years old. This guest post by their mother, Terri Sendelbach, shows us that her youngest two aren’t the only ones who are learning at Easter Seals –Ava is, too.

Just a boy

by Terri Sendelbach

Ava, Joey and Sophia Sendelbach

I sat down to help Ava with her homework the other day, but before opening her math book, she said that she wanted to tell me something. Here was our conversation:

  • Ava: Mom, there is a picture in my book where somebody—and NOT me—wrote something that wasn’t nice over a picture of a boy. It was mean, so I erased it. Do you want to see it?
  • Me: Yes, I would like to see it.

There was a picture of a young boy sitting at a table. He had a huge smile on his face. It was clear to me that this boy had some sort of physical disability. Above his picture you could make out the erased word c-r-e-e-p-y with an arrow pointing to his face.

  • Ava: I don’t know why someone would write that, he is just a boy.

Just a boy. You see, for Ava, it is commonplace to see a person with a disability. That’s because ever since she was 4 years old, she’s been around people with all types of disabilities. So to her, this boy looked no different than other boys she knows.

I was so proud of her in that moment that I could’ve burst. But I controlled myself, refrained from bursting, and we started her homework.

Ava and all my kids are fortunate to be exposed to all types of people with all types of disabilities at Easter Seals DuPage and the Fox Valley Region. They know that it takes all kinds of people to make this world go around and around. I’d like to say that my husband Joe and I are responsible for this awareness, but I have to give Easter Seals some (ok, a lot) of recognition.

Since that conversation with Ava I’ve been thinking a lot about compassion and tolerance and how it seems my children have copious amounts of both. Why? Was it something Joe and I did? Is it luck? Can you really teach compassion?

I think the answer to all those questions is yes. My children are compassionate and tolerant people because they were born with those traits and life has only built upon them and made them stronger. You can teach compassion, too, but not in the traditional sense. Our teaching is done by guidance.

Like all parents, Joe and I want our kids to be happy and considerate, compassionate, tolerant individuals. We don’t sit them down and tell them how to be happy or how to be compassionate. We show them by doing. Like when we are at Easter Seals, and a young girl who can’t talk is practicing to walk on the track. She walks right by us, and I tell her, “I just love your shoes!” In that moment, I don’t notice that my kids are there watching me interact with this young girl. They are, though. They are watching me. They watch me talk to her just the same as I would talk to someone who can talk and walk.

Or how about when we were at the grocery store and the cashier is a different color than us, or is wearing cultural clothing, like a burqa or a yamaka, for example. I wouldn’t behave any differently towards that cashier if it were my own aunt checking out our purchases. Well, I probably wouldn’t give them a hug or kiss like I would my aunt, but you get the picture!

Encouraging questions in that instant or in private would be a great learning opportunity for them. I would maybe start off asking, “Did you see that lady’s dress where it covered her whole body and you only saw her eyes? Do you know why she wears that? Here, lets google it and find out!” Once children learn the answer, it empowers them with knowledge. The next time they come across a woman in a burqa, they will know why she wears it and will probably not even think twice about it.

I always tell my children two things when we’re having important conversations:

  1. Always try your hardest.
  1. Just because you are different doesn’t make you better or worse than anyone else.

So that’s how Joe and I teach our children compassion and tolerance. We teach by doing. It is the way that works for our family. And so far so good. My children are compassionate, tolerant people, but they are not perfect. I am sure there have been instances where they could’ve shown someone (or even each other) more compassion. As long as they are trying their hardest at whatever they are doing and know they are no better or worse than anyone else, I am one proud parent who will try her hardest to refrain from bursting.

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  11. Marcia Lichtenberger Says:

    The above children are my grandchildren . I can attest to the fact that Ava, Joey and Sophia are compassionate and kind in their interactions with all people around them. I am proud that my daughter Terri and my son-in-law Joe, are doing an exceptional job raising their children.

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