Getting an early start

I recently took my teenage son to an ecotourism project in the big Complexo do Alemão group of favelas [slums] in northern Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There are cable gondolas that stop on all five mountaintops, from where we could see the entire bay and all the beautiful mountain ranges. Dotting the mountains, there are also thousands of small huts lacking decent roofs and with bare and unpainted brick walls. Those were the favelas.

At one point, my son commented: “It’s amazing how many more poor people there are than rich!”

On our way back down, we talked with a missionary who had begun working there before peace had been achieved, at the time when the police and drug cartels had been engaged in daily gun battles. Another woman described how she used to have to walk to the fountain to get water every day when she was younger, until her father and others had been able to dig a community well. Life in the area has improved significantly in the past few years, but the stories these women shared were a reminder of the dire conditions so many people live in. This excursion had quite an impact on my son, who is now showing more interest in helping destitute families in our city rather than being primarily concerned with having his own wants met.

I believe that teaching children from an early age to consider others and share is vital, so that this becomes part of their personality. I recently read that the children who survived WW2 learned solidarity through the dreadful circumstances they had to endure. Years of sharing every scrap of bread or meat helped to mold their characters for the rest of their lives and became part of their way of being.

For many years, I have taught children of volunteer workers in different countries, and the conditions have not always been ideal. Sometimes we had to rotate the didactic materials or toys that were available, so it was imperative that the children learned to take turns and cooperate in small chores, like putting away their things or clearing the table after a snack.

Children can develop compassion for others through participating in services for the community, scout groups, or helping the less fortunate, and if they have been taught these values from an early age, they will be more likely to hold on to them for the rest of their lives.