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Caring without scaring: How to teach kids to care about the world without frightening them off the planet

Illustration by the Detroit Free Press / MCT
Illustration by the Detroit Free Press / MCTRead more

By Heidi Stevens

Chicago Tribune


Reality is a tricky teaching tool when it comes to parenting.

On the one hand, you want to shield your children from images and stories that will frighten them or cause them anxiety. On the other, you want to teach them perspective and knowledge about the world around them.

If you want your child to have empathy, you can — and should — do both, experts say.

"You don't feed a baby a steak," says Homa Sabet Tavangar, author of "Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be at Home in the World" (Ballantine Books). "You give them age-appropriate portions and the right consistency, but you do need to feed them."

So it is with "feeding" them reality.

When an earthquake struck Haiti in January, Tavangar pre-screened a photo slideshow on a newspaper Web site to show her 6-year-old. The images showed the ravaged island and survivors living in tents.

"You want to humanize the dignity and strength of the people experiencing the disaster, so it's not just 'those people,'" she says. "A natural part of growing up is knowing the world has justice and injustice and there are things we care about and things we can change and things we need to change."

In her book, Tavangar writes: "Once you and your children feel a closer connection to what is going on in the world and how others live, play, study, eat, worship and celebrate, it is natural that you will care about the health and survival of the planet and its inhabitants — whom you regard as your family and friends."

But don't wait for a natural disaster to start imparting empathy. The lessons can happen in daily doses, say experts. Here are five tips to get you started.

Meet your child's needs. Children are naturally self-centered, and nurturing them can actually help them become less so. "When a child's needs are met in all the ways they have needs — emotional, physical, spiritual — they don't have to put energy into getting their own needs met, and they have energy left over to direct in other ways," says Warren B. Seiler, child and adolescent psychiatrist and author of "Battling the Enemy Within: Conquering the Causes of Inner Struggle and Unhappiness" (Victory Laine). "They become other-centered. Empathy comes from being loved and cherished and watched over as a child goes from birth onward."

Don't overindulge. "If you meet all your child's needs, you can't cause any problems," Seiler says. "If you meet all their wants, that's a different story."

It's important for kids to know that you aren't what you buy, Tavangar says. "You can keep buying your kids stuff and keep entertaining them, and it will never be enough, and it will never help them feel satisfied," she says. "That only happens when they learn to give back. That's when you get depth and meaning in your life."

Be a role model. "When a child grows up in an empathetic environment, they know what it looks like and what it feels like," Tavangar says. "Who are your friends? Who do you invite to your dinner table? What kind of service are you engaged in? Do you talk that stuff through? 'We're devoting a portion of our annual budget to this cause because we care and because it matters.' Help them see how that directly goes back to your own well-being and humanity's well-being. You're not lecturing them. It just becomes part of your family values."

Have frequent discussions. Talk about the harsh realities your children encounter, whether it's a homeless person living on the street or a child being bullied at school. Ask them how they feel about what they witness, and tell them how you would respond empathetically.

"We always talked about how to treat other people," says Seiler, who has three grown children. "They had all this extra energy, and they wanted to use it the way we used it. Children become like the people who are nurturing them."

Figure out ways to help. "Empathy is like a muscle," says Tavangar. "We can have it in us, but if we don't exercise it, it doesn't come out necessarily."

Plenty of charitable organizations were started by children who were upset by something they witnessed, including Ryan's Well — a foundation devoted to delivering clean, safe water to developing countries that was founded in 1999 by then-7-year-old Ryan Hreljac.

"Their compassionate parents didn't tell them to forget about those thoughts or that it's all OK," Tavangar writes in her book. "Instead they helped the child develop a plan of action, find creative avenues for service, fundraise and even engage in policy advocacy. This way, kids felt empowered to right a wrong and not stand helplessly or anxiously on the sidelines."

Vice presidents Rosemarie Truglio and Jeanette Betancourt from Sesame Street's nonprofit organization Sesame Workshop ( compiled tips for parents to help children cope with natural disasters shortly after the Haiti earthquake.

"Put together a lemonade stand or a bake sale in your community or school to donate the proceeds," they suggest. "Helping others will not only help your child learn about empathy, it also shows that there are people that will be there to help during tough times."


Homa Sabet Tavangar devotes a chapter in "Growing Up Global" to "service and giving," which experts agree are key ingredients for empathy. A few of her suggestions:

Read "A Kid's Guide to Giving," by Freddi Zeiler (Innovative Kids Publishing). "A handy little workbook-type resource to help kids figure out how to start giving back."

Click on "(The site) gets teens mobilized, informed and maybe excited enough to take action. Young people are starting Do Something clubs all over the country."

Watch "Back to School," a PBS film that follows children in Afghanistan, Kenya, India, Japan and other countries as they struggle to get an education. (Available at

Collect your change to donate to a worthy cause. "As little as (6 cents) can buy life-saving solutions for children," Tavangar writes.

Discuss poverty and hunger. For elementary schoolers, ask, "Have you ever been hungry for several hours or more? What was that like?" For tweens, ask how being hungry affects their mood and their ability to do schoolwork or sports. For teens, ask how they feel about celebrities getting involved in charitable campaigns and whether they and their friends could get excited about making a difference in the world.