After raising three children and now being very involved in the lives of my six grandchildren, I have learned one indisputable thing: children (and people) are selfish!

Because of this, teaching a child to be compassionate seems like an uphill battle, but if we want our kids to be like Jesus, we need to serve and love others with them.

In her book, Growing Compassionate Kids, Jan Johnson wants this for her children: “I long for them to be individuals who like to offer cups of cold water to the thirsty; who dare to whisper words of life to the unreached; who want to love all peoples the way God does; who strive to set aside the pull of materialism and spend their resources on worthwhile purposes.” Who wouldn’t want such kids?

Psalm 68:5 says, “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” So if that’s what God is like, then we also want to be like that—and we want our children to be like that too.

But how do we do this?

We must communicate God’s heart for the needy to our kids, and help them feel his compassion.

As churches and individuals, we often emphasize God’s power and perfection, but we often do not impress on our children his deep compassion for those who are downtrodden.

But if you read the Bible, you will be astounded how many times God talks about compassion and justice and the need to treat others with kindness and generosity. In fact, most of the passages that speak of Christ’s return center on balancing the many inequities in this world.

For example, Psalm 146:8-9 says, “The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.” Matthew 25:31-46 makes clear that the way we treat others if how we are treating Christ himself.

Poverty can be defined not primarily as a lack of money, but as “a lack of healthy connections.” If that’s true, then the church has a lot to offer people who are disconnected and stuck in a cycle of need. What if we all moved together into the worlds of our needy neighbors? What if our kids saw us doing that and wanted to join us?

We must lead by example, and help our kids empathize with those in need by showing them what compassion looks like.

If we want our children to have compassion for others, we will have to be showing such compassion ourselves. What do your kids see you doing for others?

For example, you could take meals to new parents or those who are sick, help elderly neighbors with household chores or join a team that visits those in prison or the hospital. Even kindness toward friends and family can teach kids healthy compassion and help them see the world in an outward-focused way.

As a family, brainstorm some ways you could enter someone else’s world. Ask your child to join you as you do these things and ask them for ideas too. Maybe they know a child or a teacher who is ill. Perhaps they’ve observed an elderly neighbor who has trouble getting around or who looks lonely. When you are finished brainstorming, pick a few things from your list and plan quarterly or monthly excursions.

Depending on the temperament of your child, you will have to determine their ability to handle people’s needs. If your child is particularly tenderhearted, you may have to explain others’ problems in a way that won’t cause them too much distress.

It’s never too early to teach kids to “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7 NLT). Most kids are delighted to make a difference, and you will be too. Start today, and see how a lifestyle of compassion can change your family and help you and your kids be more like Jesus.

Read an earlier post in this series here.