When my husband and I decided to have children, we sat down to generate a list of parenting goals. At the very top of our list was to raise kind people. Of course I want my kids to be happy. I want them to be healthy. I want them to be successful. But upon reflection, we decided that you can’t be a truly happy, healthy or successful person if you aren’t good and kind at your core. And that comes from having compassion.

For the first several years, I did not feel I could do much beyond modeling compassionate behavior to the little ones. We are civic-minded people and by default, my kids would participate in our activities, usually attached to us by some sort of baby wearing device or perched like a 30-pound parrot on my husband’s shoulders. We tried not to make a big thing about it. We kept it simple and tried to behave in the way that we would want them to behave in the future. It was and is an incredibly challenging exercise in control. Sometimes I slip and act a little bit like an adult sized brat. At least I am honest about it right? But I always apologize for my slip and I do it in front of my children. Nobody is perfect. My kids need to learn this too. In fact, maybe watching mommy apologize is part of beefing up that compassionate bandwidth.

Biking to Build Community

Adopting a family bicycle lifest‌yle was very much a part of our plan to raise compassionate, community driven humans. Whenever possible, we bike rather than drive in our town because we want our kids to know their environment, to feel it, smell it and be a part of it. After all, how can I expect my kids to care and have compassion toward the community if I haven’t really introduced them to what a community is?

Bicycling has done that for us. My son’s sense of place has skyrocketed along with the rest of us. He is confident in his community and on a daily basis he meets new people who are different from him. Exposure facilitates awareness and understanding, which are critical elements to developing compassion.

Recognize Compassionate Actions Both Big and Small

Get loud when you are happy, stay calm when you are mad. This is a motto that I strive to achieve but sometimes struggle to implement. It’s easy for me to make a lot of noise over the things that frustrate me. I am an excellent venter and I think being honest and vocal about our feelings is positive in healthy proportions.  However, it’s important not to let negative noise overshadow recognition of all the things that are good, especially in our children. Look for the moments that your young one demonstrates compassion and recognize when it happens!

Compassion can be enhanced or diminished. Research indicates that compassion may be something we are innately born with. We are communal creatures and our ability to collaborate, help each other and demonstrate empathy was essential for our survival in early times. However, compassion is like a muscle. The more you flex and exercise it with conscious, compassionate acts, the easier it will be to default to.

The Time My Son Made My Heart Glow

About 6 months ago, my then 3-year-old son did something beautiful. He had made a get-well card for a friend’s daughter who had been burned. A day later we hadn’t sent the card and so it sat on his art table, waiting. My son and his babysitter were walking home from our nearby park when he saw a young girl getting out of the car after receiving chemotherapy. She was wearing a mask and he knew right away that she was sick. He ran home as fast as his little legs could carry him (babysitter in tow) and went strait to his art table to get the card. Then he ran it back to the girl in order to deliver it before they disappeared into their house. He didn’t know her, but he knew she was hurting and he wanted to help in a way that his 3-year-old mind thought he could.

Exercising Compassion: How We Turned a Bike Adventure Into Acts of Kindness

A few weeks ago at bedtime we read the book “How Kind” by Mary Murphy. In it, a hen gives a pig an egg. So moved by her kindness, the pig wants to do the same. As each animal receives kindness, they are inspired to pass it along to another. I asked my son at the end of the book what act of kindness he could do for someone else. He replied with “find sticks and give them to people”. A good stick is worth a lot in our house and has been the source of more then a few conflicts. But luckily he quickly changed his mind and decided he would make a card instead.

So I asked him if he wanted to turn the idea into action and make cards for his neighbors. And he couldn’t wait to get started! Seriously, he couldn’t wait. It took an incredible amount of encouragement to convince him that this activity would best wait until we woke up in the morning.

The next day, Operation Biking Acts of Kindness began. We cut whatever art paper we had in the drawer into quarters, dumped a ton of Elmer’s Glue on each and he went about gluing all sorts of random bobbles, odds and ends to the cards. To top it off, each card received a dusting of his glitter for good measure. The cards dried during the remainder of the day and the next morning we all grabbed our bikes to deliver them.

As we were getting ready to ride, I was feeling all the warm and fuzzy feels inside until a catastrophe of epic proportions struck. My son discovered that he left his Batman cape for his Batman Lego at the neighbor’s house. And with that, our do gooder plans were paused. It was going downhill and fast. He has a real thing for the Toy Story franchise and it has taught him that lost toys are sad and need to be found. No toy left behind with this one.

For the experience to have meaning, I needed him all there. But It was too early to actually knock on the neighbor’s door for the cape. I had only intended on placing cards on doorsteps. I reached deep inside myself and in my best calm tone acknowledged that he was frustrated and sad not to have his cape. But I offered him a solution! We would drop off cards at everyone’s house and save our last card for the house where the cape had been forgotten. By then, it would be a reasonable time to knock on the door, hand them a card and search for the cape. Brilliant right?

No. He said no.

For the love of all things holy. What was that thing I was trying to teach him again? Compassion. That’s right. So remembering that modeling behaviors is how children learn, I tried to give it one more go. I made the exact same case and crossed all my fingers and toes that it would stick. And to the relief of my tired patience it did! He reluctantly agreed to bike on and our plan was back in action.

In just a few pedals, he was back to himself again. And after delivering the first card he looked back with excitement and said “we’re having fun!!” We went around the neighborhood and dropped off cards. We did not prioritize who the cards were for. It was an organic and sometimes random selection made in the moment by our 3.5-year-old biker. And of course he completely forgot about the cape.

The only disappointment came when we ran out of cards. But that sadness was quickly replaced with joy when we returned home and found not one, but two thank you cards dropped on our porch! Kindness was begetting more kindness. And doing kind acts for others took a capeless Lego Man sadness and turned it into joy. I could not have planned this!! Our story had come full circle and my son noticed.

My Simple Recipe for Biking Acts of Kindness

Reading & Literacy: Any book about compassion to prime the pump

Art: Create cards, or whatever other act of kindness your child generates

Physical Activity: 45 min of biking around the neighborhood to deliver it!

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