How do you instill compassion in children? Try throwing some dirt, worms and turtles in distress into the mix.

Growing Kindness

By Austin Bailey, World Ark senior editor
Illustrations by Lauren Wilcox Puchowski

The classic children’s book The Giving Tree has its critics, and honestly, I can see their point. Look beyond the sweet storyline and charming artwork and you’ll find some serious dysfunction. That enabling apple tree takes generosity to its gruesome extreme, winding up maimed, exhausted and still shouldering the weight of the voracious child who takes and takes and takes. The Giving Tree might be happy, but the taking boy certainly isn’t.

Whether this level of martyrdom is the pinnacle of good parenting or a recipe for sociopathy is a popular debate with psychiatrists and mommy bloggers. Some say the book is a simple tale about motherly love, but if so I have a few questions. Why didn’t the boy grow up to model mama tree’s benevolence? Was it the tree’s fault that the boy ended up gruff and alone? What exactly went wrong?

The tree teaches us that giving is the path to happiness; the shame is that she didn’t teach this lesson to the boy. I think The Giving Tree was meant as a cautionary tale, a reminder that children arrive with a sense of entitlement, and that it’s our job—as parents, teachers, neighbors, etc.—to foster a sense of responsibility, too.

Research backs up that theory. A McGill University study that tracked 75 people from age 5 to adulthood shows that children whose parents are big on nurturing but not so big on setting limits and encouraging self-sacrifice tend to become adults who lack compassion. This study, which debunked the conventional wisdom at the time, came out in 1990, 26 years after Shel Silverstein published The Giving Tree. If he meant his book as a warning about the perils of parental overindulgence, he was ahead of the pack.

In defense of Silverstein’s tree, let’s admit that when it comes to adorable little people, it can be hard to take the hard line. I know this because there are two adorable little people living at my house. Amos, now 5, would gobble donuts for every meal given the chance, and I’m not sure if he would offer to share with me. The 2-year-old Puck, left unchecked, would decorate all walls and floors in Technicolor scrawl, without any thought to the aftermath. And as all parents come to learn, giving in and then scrubbing teeth and walls afterwards is the easy way out. Speeding past the donut shop despite pleas from the backseat and confiscating errant Crayolas take resolve considering the tears and whining sure to follow.

I’m not too worried my boys’ aptitude for gluttony and vandalism will lead them down a path that ends with them at middle age, lonely and living in my basement. They’re children after all, and underneath the “gimmes” that pop out so quickly in the toy aisle at Target, children are inherently good, brimming with empathy. To show it, they simply need opportunities and encouragement. I know this from watching how my boys smother our arthritic golden retriever in snotty, slobbery kisses, and how when one boy cries, the other often joins in.

More concrete proof of children’s built-in empathy pops up in my inbox virtually every day. The cows, goats, seeds and training Heifer International sends out around the world are paid for partly by the car washes, living gift markets and lemonade stands orchestrated by children who may whine for a donut but would gladly give half of it away to someone who was genuinely hungry. The inclination is there; children just need paths to channel it.

Erin Welsh found her path during a church retreat to Heifer’s Overlook Farm in Rutland, Mass., where she realized her luck at having plenty of food and a sturdy house. At just 14 years old, this high school student from West Seneca, N.Y., organized a community of musicians to put on a series of fundraising concerts for Heifer. Erin herself headlined each show, singing covers and her own original songs as she strummed her signature red guitar. Zoe Smith of Chapel Hill, N.C., now 15, started even earlier. She was still in elementary school when she started making and selling jewelry to raise money for Heifer. Her contributions total $25,000 so far.

Our job as adults is to teach children about need and offer them opportunities to help, said Beth Rafferty, the youth director at the Orange Congregational Church in Orange, Conn. “The best way to teach children the importance of giving is to get them involved with charity work as young as possible and as often as possible.” Small children are limited by short attention spans, but they can make Valentine’s Day cards for people who are confined to their homes or sing Christmas carols in a nursing home, Rafferty said.

Lisa Sundean, a mother of two in East Hartford, Conn., had her boys hang mittens on a mitten tree for people who needed them and deliver clothes to a shelter when they were small. During the elementary years, the family volunteered together at a soup kitchen. The lessons took. “Our sons know it’s not what we have that matters, it’s what we give that matters,” Sundean said.

My first shot at getting my then 4-year-old son interested in helping others was a slam dunk, probably because it involved worms, rotten pumpkins and lots of dirt. I knew it was important to make his first official volunteer event a fun one, so we agreed on a service day at a community education garden. Our job was to smash a pile of rotten pumpkins using a shovel, then feed the slimy chunks to the worms. I’m not making this up, although if you asked me to choose a perfect chore for a 4-year-old boy I doubt I could come up with anything better. Amos’ favorite part came when we opened an infested worm bin and dozens of roaches poured out.

Growing Kindness

My attempts to explain to him about where food comes from and the importance of making sure healthy food is available to everyone didn’t get much traction. He was too distracted by the chicken coop and a makeshift tunnel wrapped in gourds and twisting vines. And even if he wasn’t, food deserts and sustainable agriculture are lofty topics for the preschool set. He understood that he was helping, and he had lots of fun. A pretty great start.

In keeping with the dirt theme and encouraged by our day with the worms, the boys and I planned a backyard garden, the fruits of which we planned to deliver lovingly to a homeless shelter. Amos chose envelopes of watermelon, cilantro and sunflower seeds and squash and broccoli starts, and he did a fair job helping to turn the soil and mark the rows in our tiny plot. The sunflowers sprouted up to about a foot high before bugs ate their tiny leaves and the stalks curled back down to the ground. The squash shriveled before we could pick them, and nothing ever came of the watermelon seeds. Too much Arkansas heat, not enough sun and clouds of hungry bugs left us with nothing but a handful of tough-skinned cherry tomatoes.

The volunteer coordinator at the shelter suggested that we bring some homemade treats instead, so Amos helped mix batches of brownies and rice crispy treats. He didn’t seem disappointed, and sharing treats was an easy concept for him to grasp.

We’ve made lots of smaller gestures, too. I tried to follow Sundean’s advice to weave giving into the everyday by asking Amos to round up toys he no longer played with so we could donate them, and to make artwork for a sick relative. He went along with these things but didn’t say much, and I wondered if I was being too preachy, or if maybe I wasn’t asking him to do enough. What if I missed the elusive balance between fostering empathy and annoying my kid to the point of apathy? Parenting in the information age means books and websites full of expert information are readily at hand, and instincts are easily buried in statistics and contradictory advice.

But then, on a morning at the end of summer, Amos spied a turtle crossing the road, and he yelled for me to stop. By the time I pulled into a neighbor’s driveway he was fidgety and straining at the straps of his car seat. We waved our arms to alert a car driving by, then held hands and plucked the turtle from the pavement. Amos wanted to get a water bottle out of the car to douse the turtle, and I had to explain to him that not all turtles live in ponds and the ocean. Then Amos put the turtle down in the grass and watched him trundle away.

That afternoon when we got home, Amos still had the turtle on his mind. He grabbed my arm and tugged me down the street to where we’d last seen it, wanting to make sure he was still safe. The turtle wellness check wasn’t my idea, and I didn’t push it. I only needed to put my hand out so he could pull me along.

Amos was so proud that night that we had to call the grandparents to report on our successful turtle rescue. I anticipate plenty more reptile encounters, worm feedings and cookie deliveries in our future. When Amos doesn’t take the initiative himself then I’ll gladly nudge, which is always a mom’s prerogative. In fact, it’s her duty. The seeds of kindness won’t grow and thrive unless they’re well tended.