Parents Guide: Turning Compassion into Action
Expert guidance and tips to help your children use kindness to change the world—and live happier, healthier lives.
Table of Contents
- Raising Compassionate Kids — James R. Doty, M.D., Director and Founder of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University
- Supporting Compassion with Media — Caroline Knorr, Senior Parenting Editor at Common Sense Media
- Community Involvement with Kids — Celina Gomes, former volunteer coordinator and mother of two GoFundMe kid heroes
- 5 Key Takeaways for Parents & Caregivers
- Activities to Build Compassion— Crafts and activities to spark conversations about kindness and helping others
- Additional Resources
At GoFundMe, we know that parents and caregivers have an incredibly important job: raising the future generation. And especially in recent years, parents have said that above all, they simply wish for their kids to be kind.
Every day, we see amazing kids using our platform to help others in need. We believe that kids are born with the instinct to help others—we just have to help them spread their wings.
GoFundMe has put together this special guide for parents and caregivers to help your children use kindness to change the world—and live happier, healthier lives. We’ve packed the guide full of expert advice, tips, and activities based on the latest available research and resources.
We hope you find this guide helpful and share it with others for years to come. Thanks for joining us in helping kid heroes change the world.
We are born with the instinct to help each other.
Studies show that toddlers as young as 14 to 18 months know how to help, even without rewards, and concern for others has been observed in the first year of a child’s life.
When a child sees someone or something in need, they spontaneously act to help that person or animal. As we grow older, we rein in that instinct, and we start making judgments about who deserves our help in an increasingly anxious modern world.
What kids remind us is that simple acts of kindness — like opening a door for someone, carrying groceries, or even saying hello — cost us nothing and can have a profound effect on others.
Helping others also makes us feel good. In recent studies, researchers have shown that people who give to others appear happier than when they receive the resources themselves, and similar results have been found with young children.
But compassion doesn’t just feel good. Research shows that it also helps us build new relationships and live happier, healthier lives. When our kids help others, they feel more connected with the people around them and reap psychological and physical rewards for years to come.
For young children, learning compassion starts at home. As a parent, you can contribute to your child’s development in a number of ways, including modeling compassionate behavior and teaching her how to manage her emotions.
Children model their behavior after their parents. Even at a young age, children are adept at telling truth from fiction, so it’s important to act authentically. When you respond to a situation with true compassion, your child will notice and follow suit.
But modeling is not enough. Studies show that the greater your child’s ability to self-regulate her own emotions, the more likely she is to respond with compassion when faced with something distressing — rather than becoming distressed herself.
To encourage social, emotional, and cognitive growth, conversation is key. Make time to sit with your child and tell them stories of how compassion or kindness has benefited you. After your child watches you perform an act of kindness such as volunteering or giving food to a homeless person, have a discussion and ask them how they felt, what they saw, and why they think you did that behavior. Some examples:
Conversation starters to encourage kids’ compassion
How would you act in a similar situation?
Can you give me an example of a time when you could help another person?
How does it feel when you hurt yourself or need something and I’m here for you?
How can you help others feel that way?
The stories you watch or read together also make an impact. When children read fictional stories that recognize acts of kindness as keys to making the world a better place and feeling good about themselves, they incorporate those beliefs into their worldview.
Gratitude is also an important way for children to reach beyond themselves and help others. When children recognize the ways in which they are fortunate and realize that others don’t always have the same privileges, it builds greater understanding and empathy. From there, we can prompt them to turn their compassion into action — to help others in need.
When we incorporate compassion and gratitude into who we are, it has a profound benefit on our mental and physical health and longevity. It lowers our blood pressure, boosts our immune system, and even decreases inflammatory proteins associated with health conditions. Research shows that performing acts of service and caring gives us meaning, contentment, and happiness.
When we encourage our children to be compassionate and help others, we give them the gift of a happier, healthier present and future. And together, we make the world a better place.
In today’s digital world, many parents worry about the loss of character as more kids spend time alone on a computer or communicating through a screen. But research shows that kids can and do learn from media — what matters is which messages they’re absorbing and how those messages get reinforced.
Whether it’s from a preschool show about sharing or a teen video game about war, lessons about character can positively affect kids’ behavior and self-esteem. Most importantly, parents who are involved in their kids’ media lives — parents who co-view, co-play, and talk about TV shows, movies, books, and games — reinforce their own values as well as the media’s pro-social messages.
Media Picks That Support Compassion & Empathy
Common Sense Media worked with researchers and educators to identify and define 11 key characteristics that embody life skills, moral choices, and personal virtues — including compassion and empathy. We then mapped each trait to movies and TV shows so you can easily find shows and start conversations.
Media Tips for Parents of Little Kids (Ages 5–7)
Watch, play, read, and talk. Simply enjoying a show, a book, or a game together and discussing a character’s behavior and actions helps kids better understand the internal motivation behind character traits. At this age, kids will soak up whatever they see and hear, so look for media with positive role models, messages about sharing and being a good friend, and managing feelings. These tips can help:
Books, TV, Movies
- Keep things simple. Stories with one main idea that’s supported by the action are most effective for preschoolers. Look for short TV shows that stick to pro-social messages. Little kids often think that it’s the threat of punishment that makes a protagonist behave a certain way. Help them understand that it’s important to do the right thing even when, for example, you won’t get caught.
- Don’t expect young kids to understand the moral of the story. Folktales and fables are fun, but their messages don’t necessarily get through to preschoolers (especially when the characters aren’t human). No need to push it if the moral is lost on your kid.
- Look for characters and situations your kid can relate to. Kids who see themselves in a protagonist are more likely to understand and copy their pro-social behavior. A show about the importance of honesty, for example, will go over better if your kid has something in common with the character — say, a new baby sister or a dislike of broccoli.
Media Tips for Parents of Big Kids (Ages 8+9)
Help kids translate positive media messages to their own behavior. Co-viewing, co-playing, and modeling good digital citizenship continue to be important. Once kids can read, write, and go online independently, character lessons can extend to how you expect your kids to act in the online world. These tips can help:
Books, Movies, TV
- Simple is still better. This age group still has some difficulty understanding character lessons in complex stories. They need to see the basic cause-and-effect sequence of how a character’s motives are connected to actions and consequences.
- Fables can wait. Children are typically unable to extract lessons from fables until fourth grade. Younger children tend to retell specific parts of the story instead of absorbing a more general principle. Enjoy them if you want to — just don’t expect kids to learn the morality message.
Interactive, Digital Media
- Teach digital citizenship. Explain your rules about responsible online behavior.
- Choose cooperative games. Find games that depend on players working together to solve a problem.
- Failing is OK. Look for apps that reward you for trying and trying again.
- Think outside the box. Introduce games and apps that emphasize creativity and curiosity vs. those that are simply goal-oriented.
For more character strength media picks and media tips for older age groups, check out the full article on Common Sense Media.
When my young children Walt and Naima started their GoFundMe pajama drive for foster kids, I got calls and emails from friends saying how surprised they were that young children could make such a difference. They asked me, “What can I do with my own kids?”
Through my time as a volunteer coordinator for a nonprofit, I’ve realized that because of age limits for traditional volunteering, many parents don’t know how their kids can get involved. So when my friends asked what they could do, I reminded them that there’s no age requirement for compassion.
Compassion is a big deal for our family. It can start with simple things like telling your friend who’s having a bad day that you understand and know what that feels like. Once you establish that foundation, your child has the tools to make a difference.
I also tell my friends to talk to their kids about what their interests are and start looking into creative outlets. Ask an organization what donations they could use, and run a collection drive with a GoFundMe. Make cards and give them to people on the street who are asking for a smile or some change. Even better, throw in a toothbrush and some socks. Think about what you can do from home that is accessible and reasonable for your family.
Most importantly, be a role model in action for your kids. In turn, they will become role models for you. I encourage my kids to do better and be kinder every day, and they do the same for me. I wish the same for you and your family. And to help you get started, I’ve created the list below…
Ways to help organizations:
Listen to your children . . . they know what they are interested in. They know what troubles them. They want you to hear their concerns. This is the first step in making sure they are engaged in the volunteering they do. It will feel fun and worthwhile if it is something they are truly excited and curious about.
Visit nonprofits . . . Just because kids may not meet the age requirement for volunteering at a nonprofit or program, it doesn’t mean they aren’t welcome to visit and learn about the work they do. This is great for setting the foundation for their volunteering in the future. It also turns your kids into the best spokespeople for the good work that is being done in your community. They will inevitably want to share and chat about these programs with teachers, family, and their friends’ parents. When this happens, let your children know how proud of them you are. They are making an impact on people that have the opportunity to make an impact! Connect the dots with them, and explain how cool that is.
Support or start a drive . . . Most non-profits in your area are excited to accept in-kind gifts. If their website doesn’t already detail a wish list of items that are needed, give them a call and find out what they need most. An animal shelter may love pet food, while an after-school program may need pencils or public transportation passes. Food pantries are naturally inclined to accept canned goods and other non-perishables. Once you know what the program needs, organize within your family to collect the specific items from friends and neighbors. You can also start a GoFundMe to fundraise for new items. Make it fun for kids by letting them make posters you can display or upload to your personal social media. Encourage kids to thank their donors in simple but meaningful ways. Take a picture of the kids with all of the donations before delivery and print as thank you cards — easy, thoughtful, and keeps the charity front and center in the minds of your donors and on their fridge! Some of my family’s favorite drives have been for baby diapers, feminine hygiene products, socks, peanut butter, and hand-knitted scarves.
Giving Bags . . . Use gallon- or quart-size plastic zip bags to create bags to give to folks in need that you see on the street. Pack the bags with socks, lip balm, protein bars, bottled water, instant coffee packets, tea bags, travel-size toiletries, tissue, hand warmers, toothbrushes, combs, soap, etc. Children can make handmade cards and drawings with simple and hopeful messages. “You are loved!” “I hope you have a great day!” Keep these bags in your vehicle where they are easily accessible. You can also have a Giving Bags party and invite friends over to make bags together. My daughter Naima even handed out Giving Bags to birthday guests as party favors so that they could hand them out to people in need.
Create your own volunteer opportunity:
If your child is interested in the environment . . . Beaches and parks are always there for us to explore and keep clean! Be cautious and prepared. Grown-ups should talk with kids about not picking up dangerous or sharp items (needles, feces, etc.). Bring your own garbage bags, gloves, and hand sanitizer. Make it fun by inviting friends, and take pictures to share on your social media.
Who are the people in your neighborhood . . . who need help? If you have seniors in your community, find out if they could use a helping hand. As a family you can grocery shop, do yard work, walk dogs, or run errands for friends that aren’t as mobile. Always remember to be considerate when offering your time so as not to offend. Instead of assuming the neighbor needs help, approach them with kindness and let them know you have extra time and want to use it in a helpful way. Teach your children to first ask what is needed and never assume what a community or person may need. Relationship building happens when we treat people with respect.
Be where you are . . . Think about how you can help your children volunteer in the communities they already belong to—including school, religious groups, scout troops, and sports teams. Kids can easily find a kid-friendly volunteering role in places that are already kid-friendly. At my daughter’s after-school program, she asked if she could take their extra snacks to teachers that were still working in their classrooms long after the 3pm bell. She was only five years old when she came up with this idea. Now, she and a buddy carry a basket with the uneaten snacks down the hall and deliver them all to teachers within minutes. It’s simple but gives her a great sense of pride, and it helps keep the hardworking teachers fueled in the afternoon! Churches may need bulletins folded. Sports teams may need balls inflated. Again, encourage kids to ask what is needed and to share their ideas with you.
Whatever-You-Love-A-Thon . . . You’ve heard of walk-a-thons, phone-a-thons, and dance-a-thons. Participants raise money by being sponsored by donors. Why not ask your kids what they would love to do to raise money for a favorite charity? Maybe they’ll shoot free-throws for foster-children or build block towers for a local food bank. You can make simple forms that your kids can present to family and friends. Ask folks to give $0.50 for ever soccer goal made or $1 for every cartwheel turned in one minute. Make it fun by filming the feat to post on your social media, and take pictures to use for thank-you cards. You can even host a “Whatever-You-Love-A-Thon” party and invite 5–10 kids to each showcase what they love to do as you raise money together for one great cause!
Holiday action . . . Instead of just taking a day off of school and work, turn holidays into a reminder to take action. This would be a great day to deliver items you’ve collected to a nonprofit. Many stay open even on holidays. Consider the reason for a specific holiday, and plan an action related to it. Veterans Day is an opportunity to reach out to nonprofits or hospitals that serve vets. Your action can be as simple as personally thanking them for their service by sending drawings or nice letters.
Be an example . . . Even if your kids can’t accompany you at a volunteering opportunity, go do it! Come home and talk about your experience. Reflect on it together. Talk about the challenges you noticed that people/the environment/animals/etc. are facing and what you can do at home to help.
A special message from Celina & other GoFundMe kid hero parents:
1. Model kindness
Your kids look up to you as a role model. When you act with genuine compassion, they will respond in kind.
2. Talk about their feelings
The more kids can identify, manage, and talk about their own emotions, the easier it will be for them to empathize with others.
3. Have difficult conversations
Don’t shy away from difficult topics like homelessness or events in the news. Teach your kids to respond with compassion, not avoidance.
4. Guide with quality media
Kids love media, and you can use that to your advantage. Share quality content together to spark conversations about kindness and compassion.
5. Pay it forward
Find ways for your kids to get involved in their community, whether it’s through an existing organization or their own initiative.
Little Loving Hands
Monthly craft kits for charity that arrive in your mailbox. Each kit contains the supplies needed for you and your child to make something special to send back to others in need—and learn about worthy causes along the way.
Example craft: Make a card for a child moving into an orphanage.
WeeWork for Good
Individual craft kits to do as a family or as a group—perfect for birthday parties. Each craft teaches kids about an important social issue, and the company donates a related item to charity with each purchase.
Example craft: Make a stuffed bear while learning about health & wellness.
Make cards for people in the hospital
Contact your local hospitals to see if they will accept cards, or send them to Cards for Hospitalized Kids.
Find card-making advice and related book recommendations here.
Make cards for soldiers oversees
A Million Thanks supports active military and veterans, and they have a helpful guide for how to create and send letters to troops.
Find card-making advice and related book recommendations here.
Hygiene care bags for homeless people
Pack and deliver hygiene care bags for people who are homeless. These bags are also great to keep in your car for whenever you see someone in need.
Inspiration: Help Khloe Make a Difference
Winter clothing for homeless people
Pack and deliver warm clothing or gear for people who are homeless. Collect items from your circle of friends, family, and classmates, or start a fundraiser.
Inspiration: Ryder’s Rainboots
Pledge your birthday or a holiday to charity
Instead of gifts, children can ask their friends and family members to donate to their fundraiser or the charity of their choice.
Inspiration: Ryder’s Bday Toy Drive for St. Jude
Donate items to local agencies and support centers
Take your child with you to donate clothes, non-perishables, and other supplies. Make sure they see how the items will help the people there, and talk about how good it feels to give to others in need.
Meals for the community
Bake or cook food together for a community member who could use some extra care—whether they’re a hungry stranger or just a friend going through a difficult time.
Supplies and toys for foster children
Organize a drive for back-to-school items, toys, and suitcases for children in your local foster care center. Find your local agency here.
Inspiration: Virginia’s Diaper Drive
Start a lemonade stand for charity
Set up a lemonade or hot cocoa stand that benefits a charity or a special cause. To get more donations, set up an online fundraiser for friends and family who can’t stop by your stand in person.
Inspiration: Lemonade 4 Lunch
Start an anti-bullying club
Help your child start a club at school or your local community center to prevent bullying and teach tolerance.
Host a Peach Party
Work with your local hospital or community center to host a Peach Party for Peach’s Neet Feet, an organization that spreads joy to kids living with chronic illnesses and disabilities.
Toys for holidays and times of need
Organize a toy drive for children during the holidays or in response to a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or wildfire.
Inspiration: Meaghan’s Toys 4 Texas
Start a GoFundMe
Help your child set up an online fundraiser to help a friend, their community, or the world. Then, tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can add their campaign to our Kid Heroes page to inspire others and bring in donations.
More insights from James R. Doty, M.D.
More advice from Common Sense Media
More resources from around the web
Beyond the Golden Rule: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing and Responding to Prejudice — Teaching Tolerance
How Parents Can Cultivate Empathy in Children — Making Caring Common Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Raising Caring, Respectful, Ethical Children — Making Caring Common Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education
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Special thanks to James R. Doty, M.D., Caroline Knorr, Celina Gomes, and all the parents out there helping their kids make a difference.