Raising Compassionate Kids

Holistic Life Foundation offers strategies and practices for parents to help empower and enlighten their children.


We must equip the next generation with respect, empathy, and resilience.  Photograph: Daiga Ellaby

By Amely Greeven

Almost 20 years ago, three Baltimore men—brothers Ali Smith, Atman Smith and their friend Andres Gonzalez—created the Holistic Life Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering underserved children to develop their inner lives through practices of yoga, mindfulness and self-care. Purist’s wellness editor, Amely Greeven, asked executive director Ali Smith how parents can best support their children to be wakeful, resilient and compassionate in a time of turbulent change.

PURIST: What might adults be missing about how kids are feeling right now?

Ali Smith: A lot of parents don’t understand just how much their kids get about what’s going on. Even 6-year-olds are getting pieces. They know about George [Floyd]. They understand Black Lives Matter. They see their lives being disrupted by COVID-19. What they don’t know is: What happens next?

Kids are dealing with trauma, confusion, anger, disappointment and a lot of sadness. The traumatic experience of schools being shut down and them not being able to see their friends because of a deadly virus, the traumatic experience of seeing black men murdered on TV by cops—people many kids have been taught to trust. A lot of children are traumatized just from being at home in difficult situations. School was their escape from violence, abuse and neglect. Now they are trapped. Or it was a place where important life events were going to occur, like prom, graduation and sports. And the children who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 have an extra layer on top of that, especially if they are old enough to understand how many people—including government officials—don’t seem to think they need to take the virus seriously.

So the confusion is all-pervasive: Why are we trapped in the house and cannot see our friends? They are confused about the extreme polarization going on. It’s hard for them to process why some people are so mad about George Floyd and others don’t seem mad enough about George Floyd. Parents don’t realize how much their kids see. Most of them, even the really young ones, seem to have caught some footage of his murder, or at least understand that it exists. They’re learning in real time that people can do terrible things and get away with it, and that justice is often an illusion—at least for some people. This is a hard thing for a kid to come to terms with.

PURIST: What resources should parents help their kids develop?

AS: Making change doesn’t just take a revolution, it first takes an involution. From there, you can act on that change. We teach kids to go inward, so they can come outward effectively. Our methods focus on:

Self-Love: It’s hard for people to love anything—their communities, their families—if they don’t love themselves. This means knowing you are worthy and deserve to be treated as equally as everyone else, and you deserve to be safe. From there, you can develop empathy and love for others. Once that is birthed, you can’t go backward.

Self-Connection/Awareness: Being in touch with their thoughts and feelings helps kids avoid getting caught totally off-guard by challenge, and subsequently spiral
into depression or rage.

Resolve and Resilience: Everyone gets knocked down by life. For many of our kids, life is always going to be rough. But inner practices can give them resilience for a quicker bounce-back. When the world is in chaos, you need to be able to escape inwards, find your peace, so you can come back and show up again.

Empowerment: All children need to know that they can make change in their lives and in the world around them. We teach them to take an inner journey and then empower them to teach it to others—their auntie, their cousin or a stressed-out teacher.

Universal Connection: When a kid’s reality is stuck in the mundane, they feel limited. But when they are shown how to access a big space inside that feels peaceful, their sense of what they can do becomes limitless.

PURIST: What are some key practices that parents could borrow from you?

AS: Every kid, of every age, can learn breath control and breath awareness. Knowing how to take a full deep breath and noticing when you are “panting” are invaluable tools. The Stress Breath (ujjayi) to calm the mind, reduce stress and anxiety, and bring inner stillness during times of stress and anger. You can play guided meditations that help them realize their true universal nature and experience that they are not totally attached to the physical—there’s a place inside that can help burn off negativity. Older kids can learn to see their areas for growth and development, even discovering “shadow” parts of their personality. In some of our YouTube videos we lead groups on a “heart-centered” loving kindness practice that helps them develop love for self, for others, and even those who piss them off—so that nobody can “rent space” in their minds, draining their mental and emotional energy. And all parents can embody and advocate karma yoga—mindful and selfless service for others and the world. This gives kids the opportunity to “be the change they want to see in the world” while also seeing the changes within themselves. It teaches them to give from their heart and soul without being attached to results of their work. On our Instagram, we share a lot of these practices.

PURIST: How can parents of white kids help them to show up as spiritual activists?

AS: First, be honest about the power and privilege they have in this country being white, and how the country is set up to keep others down who aren’t. Get them to see that they are more than just a physical body, and that they are spiritually connected to all the other people on this planet. Help them to see that they can use their privilege for good. And guide them to know that when they do want to go help in a community of color, they are not there to save anyone, but to support and empower. Parents can model and support kids of all ages to commit to small daily practice—like breathwork, some yoga stretches or listening to a daily guided meditation—to build their reserves and resilience for what’s coming. Put it in their language, not yours. As we tell our kids, You either kick your own ass on the inside or you can get your ass kicked on the outside.

Connect with HLF on Instagram @holisticlifefoundation, hlfinc.org