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How to Build Compassionate Kids: Deadly Beasts, Cannibals, Empathy, and Enlightenment

Catching a villainThis post is about how I teach my children compassion.

The muscular intruder smashed into a wall as he tried to get away from me. Panic confused him. I stopped dead when he bounced, fearing that might come back at me.  Instead he took off again. Delirious fear and excitement pumped through my body. Chasing him like this, no weapon, no plan, was bloody dangerous. His desperation grew by the second. At some point soon -- I sensed it -- he might abandon hope of escape to make a final stand against me; try to take me down with him.

I pursued him into the living room where he flew over our green leather couch, hurtling headlong into the wall two feet behind, then tumbled into the space between the two where I couldn't see him. I crept to the opposite end of the couch and braced myself, ready to defend against a sudden counter-attack or to seize my chance to take him out. He remained hidden, but I could hear him moving. I would surprise him. I just needed to steady myself. Heart in overdrive and chest twitching a uselessly shallow breath each second,I was all tension.

My Dad yelled from the kitchen:

“What’s over there?”

I cried back,

“Dont' worry, I’m going to get it.”

Now was the moment. Now. Go now. But I didn’t go, and then it was too late because my Dad was beside me.

He asked,

“Get what?”

I pulled my head away and stabbed the air repeatedly towards the far end with my finger, emphasizing the danger.

“On that side ... behind the couch”

I whispered:  “A bumblebee."

"… he’s huge!”

My Dad looked walked over to look. Brave. Maybe stupid. That bee was fast; it could have shot out and stung him in the face. But it didn’t. It must have crawled under the couch because my Dad lifted the end and moved it over. I peeked and saw it, exposed, crawling on the ground. Perhaps it was stunned from hitting the wall. All the better. In his moment of weakness, as it futilely struggled to get away, my Dad was going to execute him.

Then my Dad punched me in the face.


A huge spider my kids found in the basement

A dragon-fly we played with while on a canoe trip

Peaches the injured pigeon

Peaches the injured pigeon.

The half-drowned squirrel

The half drowned squirrel.

The half-drowned squirrel.






My 3 Yr Old and I Discuss Death by Spicy Food, Cannibalism, and Saving Lives While In The Bath

Metaphorically. In reality, he picked up a sheet of paper from beside the telephone and scooped up the bee. It buzzed a complaint, trying to lift off, but failing. He took it back to the kitchen and slid it onto a plate. Now I was the confused one.

“It’s exhausted”, my Dad explained as he put a few drops of strawberry jam on the plate. The insect crawled around slowly, staying at the bottom because it couldn’t even push itself up the rising rim of the plate. Eventually it found the jam and my Dad invited me to look closer.

It was as big as my thumb and looked like an insect version of Hercules with bulging, highly defined legs and huge shoulders to power the wings. It was so hairy that it seemed to wear a bright yellow and black sweater. And it had a face. The face had eyes, a mouth, and a long flexible tongue that lapped at the jam. My own face came very close as I examined him, but the bee ignored me, absorbed in the food.

I was suddenly overwhelmed. I understood the bee. I knew its history: How it had wandered in through an open door but became lost in the house some time ago. How it confidently flew towards the sky but hit window glass instead. Bewildered it tried again, and again. That’s when I arrived and forced it to flee, but it had nowhere to go. How terrified it must have been as it hit the last wall, uncontrolled, having spent its last bit of flight energy, dropping down. It crawled into the dark under the couch to hide. When the couch was lifted all it could do was weakly drag itself away from the tall shadow. It must have known that there was no more to do. No flying. No running. No hiding. Death was reaching out.

I was convicted, because if that shadow was mine then the bumblebee would be dead. But it was my Dad’s healing hand that caught it first. His hand that put the plate outside and, after ten minutes or so, the bumblebee stopped eating and caught a breeze out of our lives.

That experience was the first time I really realized that something else might feel like I did. I literally felt my mind crack open, my heart jump to a new fidelity, sensitivity rose by an order of magnitude. It was like going from a flat picture to the real world.

I had known it intellectually, before, but seeing a dying animal being given a chance changed me. I put myself on that plate and understood that I wanted a chance too, should I need it. I was also painfully guilty: As I said, I would have killed that bumblebee.

My kids deserve that flash of enlightenment. The insight that others exist and that it’s right to show mercy and love. It’s so obvious, with the power of the method that my Dad used. So simple. Just show compassion to those in need. I owe them nothing. They can’t repay me. They won’t even thank me and will likely fear me. Do it anyway. Lead by example.

Some ways that I try to expose my kids to enlightenment and compassion opportunities

Notice Death and the Struggle

I’ve been pointing out dead things since my kids were very young. On road trips we sometimes play the cemetery game, where we call out every time we pass a cemetery. They know that dead people are buried there, just like Mom and Dad will be and they will be someday. We notice dead birds, dried up worms, roadkill, flies in spiderwebs, a snake run over by a lawnmower. One time we were at the pet store and saw a poor dismembered blue lobster in a tank being eaten by his fellow lobsters -- that was a great discussion (see the video on the left at the bottom ... my son thinks the lobster died because it ate very spicy food). We also saw a coyote get hit by a car on the highway and spent a lot of time imagining what went through its mind in the last moment.

Everything in the world has it tougher than we do and there is a huge amount of carnage happening all the time. It isn’t hard to find something in the process of dying. My kids and I watch spiders and ants catching food, outsmarting and slaying a rival insect that was itself just looking for food. Noticing death lets kids know that life is important. Death is final, which makes life a short and precious thing. When kids see something struggle to save itself they can glimpse the inestimable value of living in the desperation of a creature about to lose it.

I make sure my kids know that what they see in the animal world happens to humans too. People have fatal accidents, are nasty and kill each other, get sick and die, or simply run out of time.

Save Lives

Not only do the people in my house generally not kill bugs, we try to save them. We do kill flies, moths, and mosquitoes because they spread disease, eat our cloths, and eat us respectively. If we find a spider, on the other hand, we put it on a paper or in a glass and release it outside. Worms on the sidewalk get tossed into the grass and we don’t step on ants. From time to time we find larger animals in distress: As a family we’ve nursed to health both a pigeon (Peaches!) and a baby squirrel being murdered by ravens, a trapped bat, a bird in the chimney, a nearly drowned squirrel, and I’ve had the chance to repeat my father’s life-saving methods on a couple of bumblebees.

This teaches my kids that an action can have an impact. We don’t know much animal first aid; the most we really do is put the animal in a warm cage with some food and water for a few days until it heals itself. But even this tiniest of investments provides the largest return possible for the beneficiary. Having seen the struggles of things dying, such a small investment seems mandatory.

Additionally, the value of compassion towards humans becomes apparent. They know that an eight-legged, eight-eyed, fanged, fly eating animal with bones on the outside of its muscles loves life at least as much as they do. If they can relate to something with eight legs then how much easier to relate and empathize with another human.

Notice Life

There are so many living things to see, each with unique appearance, abilities, industry and society. Solitary spider engineers build magnificent webs -- have you ever seen it happening?  Worms tunnel into the ground to escape the sun, or burst out of the ground to escape the rain. Move a rock off an ant hill to see the ants whisk away their suddenly exposed babies to hide them deeper in the city. See a skunk in the neighbourhood and observe that it can barely see and doesn’t notice us until we make a noise -- even then it doesn’t know where the noise came from. We see prints in dirt or snow and try to identify the animal and what it was up to: squirrels moving from tree to tree, a hare meandering through a field, dogs running or walking. Trees and plants reach up into the sun. Wasps and bees look almost the same but wasps eat meat and bees eat nectar.

Noticing life gives perspective. Living is the important thing. All life forms, besides people, are mostly busy existing. They don’t suffer from lack of toys or candy or TV or video games. They don’t even want them. They are totally fulfilled and engaged without any of the conveniences and distractions that we humans have. Our great brains somehow drive us towards the frivolous, complaining about every minor inconvenience or inequity.

Where Are My Kids?

Compassion is about putting yourself in another person's shoes.  Most adults don't do this.  They have no idea that others behave the way they do for a reason, not usually because they are stupid or purposely mean, but because they're doing what they understand or are unlucky.  Putting yourself in another's shoes is an extremely valuable skill, even if you aren't saving lives, but merely negotiating with them, trying to defuse a bad situation, befriending them, trying to teach them, trying to learn from them.

My oldest, not yet seven, probably hasn’t had his enlightenment experience yet. I can tell that his compassion for others is not real, he doesn’t yet feel that he and they are the same although he "knows" very well that this is the case. However, I’m working hard. I set him up for chances to feel, to understand. I watch when an accident happens and another kid gets hurt to see if he cares. If not, we talk about it and I remind him of moments when he got hurt in the same way so that he can remember how he felt. When he’s mean to another person, I often immediately do the same mean thing to my kid, then tell him that how he feels is how the other kid felt.

My middle child, now four almost five, seems to have gotten it much more quickly. When he was three we dug up a strange insect from the garden, but we couldn’t figure out what it was. I quickly ran to get the phone so that I could describe what we found to our entomologist friend. By the time I got back my 3 year old was crying. When I asked why, my son said that he was examining the bug but was too rough and accidentally killed it. I was happy that he cried. I don’t like my kids to cry about little things, but killing something that didn’t need to die is big enough and worth a little sorrow. I think it’s manly.  And I think he understood.


Hope you liked the post. Please do me a favour ...


Wow, what a beautiful thing

julie's picture

Wow, what a beautiful thing your father and The Father instilled in you.  I have a friend with such a compassion for all living creatures.  Last summer her house was filled with fruit flies because she was raising baby dragon flies or something and that was their food.  She was just perfectly ok with the ones that escaped the terrarium.  I just have to laugh at her love for all things living.  They don't spray for fire ants which are HUGE in SC.  The reason being it hurts the anoles.  She wintered tadpoles this year.  Now she has frogs or something.  She is amazing and her kids get to see the coolest things.

Fred, the rather large cat, at a whoping 18+ pounds ran outside last summer with the front door open and dropped a 4 foot long black snake in my entryway.  OK, PLEASE.

We're rescued a baby robin and kept him until he would not eat worms on his own.  The found a shelter that would put him with other birds so he'd learn to find his own food and then release him.  It was a wonderful experience the kids still talk about.  We've since learned that fledglings don't need to be picked up and rescued.  Mom is usually close by teaching jr to fly.

I love your story.

Go find a squirrel.



Excellent observations.

Dean Mehrkens's picture

Excellent observations.

I've got eight kids, and each one is so different with where they are on the compassion spectrum. Some of them are naturally compassionate. They just feel sorry for anything and anyone for any little reason. Then I have a son who thinks its funny to be cruel to smaller critters. Its amazing how some kids seem to naturally demonstrate and understand compassion, others learn it deeply with a lesson from an awesome dad, and others need almost daily reminders.

Thanks for the thoughtful post.

Words fail me.  I was reading

Jodi's picture

Words fail me.  I was reading "Why is Daddy Crying", and your comment on "the Daughter's" brushes with death.  I expected a smart-ass blog along the lines of Justin's (don't get me wrong, I love Justin), so I am very very pleasantly surprised to read such a touching and poignant blog.  Thank you for sharing your compassion and tenderness.

Bless you for caring for the "least of these" and for teaching your children these incredibly valuable life lessons.

You definitely made me think

Megan's picture

You definitely made me think with this. It's the first time I've experienced anyone suggesting that you should help your kids focus on death, as a matter of compassion. I can see how that would be very effective with some children, as it was with you.

I'm curious about what you would have done with a child like me - I was one of those very sensitive children who always wanted to take care of everyone, and I couldn't stand death or violence. I would have cried if I had really contemplated the purpose of cemeteries, or if someone had pointed out to me an animal dead in the road. Even when I was a teenager, if I was watching TV with my parents and I saw a gun on the screen, I would leave the room - because I couldn't bear the thought of seeing someone shoot a person or an animal. 

So what's your take on helping a child with too much compassion? One who is so sensitive that it affects his/her ability to fit in with the rest of the world?

This post is amazing! I have

Lisa's picture

This post is amazing! I have been trying to think of ways to convey the value of life and death to our three year old in an age appropriate and secular way (as we are not religious at all, but still value life tremendously). It reminds me of the song "Up From Below" by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros. You should definitely give it a listen:)