When our eldest son was in the fourth grade, we took him with me into China to a rural area ravaged by AIDS. We met a widow dying of AIDS who worried what would happen to her son after she died. Seeing that her boy was the same age as our son, she tried to give her child to us. That memory still stirs in our son eight years later. And when we were in Cambodia on our last trip, we introduced our kids to some victims of sex trafficking whom we had written about. Later, when Nick was preparing a small gift for a brothel owner whom he was about to interview—the gift was meant to ingratiate himself into her brothel—our daughter was outraged. "Those people are evil," she told us indignantly. "You shouldn't give a brothel owner a gift!" And we were proud of her for saying so.

Look, we can't pretend that teaching empathy is easy, or that any of these approaches have worked perfectly. I'd love to say that after seeing impoverished kids in Cambodia who were desperately eager to go to school, our own kids suddenly came to see school as an opportunity rather than a burden. Not true: They still don't bound out of bed on school days with smiles on their faces. But the cumulative effect of an exposure to the needy at home and abroad, coupled with encouragement to engage in efforts to make a difference, has had some impact on their thinking and behavior.

One of the things that parents learn is that children never turn out exactly as we intend: There's no magic formula for childrearing. But modeling empathy does make a difference, and it's one more reason why we ourselves are often the greatest beneficiaries when we reach out and try to help the neediest around the world.

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