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Creating Compassionate Problem Solvers

The smell of sweet roasted nuts mixed oddly with the aroma of pee and garbage. Gusts of hot air rushed through the grates in the ground as we walked down the sidewalks in San Francisco. Caught in a case of being VERY hungry while touring the city, our family walked the long city block on a quest for snacks.

“Mom, Mom, MOM, MOM!!!” Big Brother grabbed my hand and whispered fiercely. I stopped, expecting him to show me a place to get a snack, pretty sure he was going to suggest ice cream, again. Who could blame him?

“MOM! I have an idea,” Big Brother was increasingly adamant and wanted me to stop. “I have an idea on how to help all these people in need. But, I have some questions first.”

I stopped and signaled to my husband to wait for us. Big Brother and I quickly moved off the sidewalk into a small alcove.

Curious, I leaned down to better hear him. A few minutes earlier, we gave out our last homeless care kit and spoke with a few other people needing help. I knew that Big Brother hated to pass people who needed help while feeling that there was no way he could help them.

“What is it?” I asked him.

“This is important.” Big Brother then peppered me with questions about training staff, bank loans, health care, and business licenses. Of course, he didn’t know those phrases, but that is what he was asking about in his 1st grade language.

After a few of his questions, I realized that the depth of his query had surpassed my ability to give detailed answers, and then I had one of those moments of connection that CLEARLY my son had already put together in his quest to help. He was describing to me the process of microloans and mentoring to build capacity for those in need, those that needed a job and dental care.

I found myself stunned and a little overwhelmed. How do I guide him next? Will I have the answers to his questions? 

Around the corner, a kid friendly cafe provided the best place to have a snack and continue our conversation. This conversation provided the first glimmer that as we raise kind kids we are doing the work of creating compassionate problem solvers. Big Brother moved from showing kindness to finding a way to compassionately solve a problem, create a systemic change, to address a root of the problem faced by the homeless.

How did a 7 year old get to this type of thinking process? Frankly, when I was in second grade, the depth of my thinking was around getting ready to read chapter books. And, although I would like to say that Big Brother is singularly exceptional because, you know, I am his mom, we’ve worked with kids and families enough to know that getting to this type of thinking comes with consistent experiences grounded in kindness, meaningful conversations, and actively helping others.

This has led us to transition forward, pushing from the step of raising kind kids up to better understand how to parent in creating compassionate problem solvers.

Want to develop compassionate problem solving abilities in your kids?

We have some ideas to help you start that journey!

1. Help your kids see the process as part of the goal instead of the immediate output of success or failure. Teaching them to use the word “YET” is a great way to facilitate this. Carol Dweck shares in a TED talk more about that.

2. Develop the skill of empathy during quiet moments. Conversations are a portable tool to do this. Whether in the car, at dinner, or waiting at the doctor’s office, talk with your kids. We use compassionate conversation starters to talk about different perspectives and how to respond to others in conflict. (Want to use what we use? Submit your email below and I will send you our free Compassion Conversations Starters for you to use with your kids.)

When you get your printable, print it out and keep it handy to use during those moments where you can chat. We keep them in a jar on our kitchen table.

compassionate conversation starters

3. Learn and share with your kids the concept of compassionate listening:

“Do your best to practice compassionate listening. Do not listen for the sole purpose of judging, criticizing or analyzing. Listen only to help the other person express himself and find some relief from suffering.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

(click here for a short conversation between Thich Nhat Hanh and Oprah on compassionate listening.)

4. As you see need in your community, point it out to your kids and have a conversation about what solutions would help fill those needs. As adults, we don’t need to have the answers. It is more powerful to model and go through the problem solving process with our kids when connecting with community needs to build their own problem solving skills. (Did you sign up for the conversation starters I mentioned above? Really, conversations are a great way to start this process!)

5. Take 10-15 minutes and do an act of kindness with your kids. Need an easy and free act of kindness idea? Leave a mirror love message for your kids!

Time for you to share! What are ways you’ve found helpful in teaching your kids to be mindful of others?