I let my daughter chase birds at the park, but she may never, ever hurt them.  I allow her to observe bugs and gently touch them if she would like to, but I ask that she never squish them. After all, they’re living creatures too. I never stop her when I overhear her reprimanding our dog, but I do remind her that he’s just a dog and forgetful like she is at times. And when she sees someone who is different from us and asks “Why are they like that?” I suggest we go up and ask them.

You would never believe the lessons and compassion that policy has created for her.

Recently my daughter returned from the park with my husband. While sharing her daredevil-ish moves and exciting adventures, she mentioned that there was a scary man sleeping on a bench. She said she stayed away from him because “we don’t talk to those people. They are bad.”  

I tried not to react and focused on her beaming pride about hanging off of the monkey bars and going down the big-girl slide. But inner turmoil and confusion crept from my stomach to my throat to my face for her and the world to see.

I was frozen. Part of me that felt ashamed because she called someone who was obviously homeless “scary” when chances were that their situation was just sad. 

Then I realized that what she believed was probably best and safest for her until she was old enough to understand. She was simply too young to balance compassion for someone it that situation while also knowing to keep her distance at the same time.

A little background: my husband was raised Hindu. Hinduism is a culture that prides itself on tolerance and kindness. I spent over a decade of my life studying Buddhism. While I sometimes found its passivity to be a detriment, I still relate to the loving kindness aspect of the religion, and always try to understand people before pointing fingers at them. 

It was very difficult to allow our child to believe that homeless people were scary. It felt like a contradiction of everything we are trying to teach her. Still, in my heart and bones I knew this was the best way to approach the situation. Her safety is the priority. Just as I tell her that the stove is hot even when it’s off so she doesn’t play by it, I needed to tell her (for now) that all strangers are dangerous so she won’t approach them. In this case, this rule includes homeless people. 

I still struggle with this. I wish I could find the perfect balance between safety and compassion for the mind of an-almost-four-year-old, but I truthfully believe that she’s too young for a fine-tuned balance to exist. 

Still, I do have some suggestions for teaching our young children to be kind and safe at the same time. This isn’t science by any means, but here are a few suggestions to pave the intentions in front of them.

For Safety

1 | Teach your children to trust their instincts: Most children are perceptive and intuitive by nature. That is why so many of them hide behind our legs and lower their volume when answering a question from someone they do not know. Nurture that gift. Tell them that if it doesn’t feel right to talk to someone, then they shouldn’t and they should find an adult they trust immediately.

2| Teach them social boundaries: Some children will talk to anyone while others won’t leave their caretakers sides. Teach your children that it isn’t okay to talk to strangers, and that it isn’t okay if strangers try to talk to them.

3 | Be honest about danger: We all find gentle ways to tell our kids not to accept candy from strangers, and not to get into a car with a stranger, but many parents are afraid to tell their children why. Tell your children of the dangers. Tell them that something bad can happen and that some strangers might try to take them away. Of course, you wouldn’t say this to a two-year-old, but as a child approaches three and four they can begin to process these threats and apply them in circumstances.

4 | Help your child to identify suspicious behavior: Instead of just scaring them with “stranger danger,” explain to them that it is not safe if a stranger offers them candy, asks for help finding something or someone, or pretends to be an authority in a make-believe story: “I know you are the kid that is bad in school. Come with me!”

Tell your child that they know all of your friends and if someone tries to pretend to be Mommy or Daddy’s friend, they are lying. Tell them over and over again to NEVER open a door for a stranger NO MATTER WHAT THE STRANGER SAYS, and NEVER get in a car with someone they don’t know.

5| Teach your children that it is okay to yell, kick, run, and do whatever they need to do to protect themselves: There is time for manners and time to make a huge scene, and we MUST teach our children that it is okay to act out this way if someone is trying to touch, hurt, or take them.

For compassion

1 | Don’t allow name-calling: Seems simple, but compassion begins with rules about what is okay and what is not. “Poopie head,” silly or not, should not be allowed. Teach children that when they get into an argument, it’s okay to be angry, but you still shouldn’t tease or call a person names.

2 | Teach good manners: By teaching children to say “please,” “thank you” and “excuse me” we set them up to be kind in their social interactions.

3 | Reward kindness with love: When you observe your child being kind to others, tell them that you are proud! Give them hugs and kisses and even high fives. Emotional rewards stimulate the mind and nervous system in ways that material rewards never will. The ‘feel good’ rewards will make them yearn for more and will also teach them what if feels like when someone is kind to them.

4 | Don’t trash-talk in front of your kids: Children are always listening and always understanding much more than we imagine. Set a good example. Practice compassion in front of them. Do not talk poorly about anyone in front of your kids if you don’t want them speaking badly of others.

5 | Point out others demonstrating kindness: Teaching by example is always powerful.  Point out other kind children and adults. Talk about heroes and leaders who are good to others. When your child hears you discussing your pride towards others like this, they will want to follow in their footsteps to make you feel proud.