I was running errands this weekend with my preschooler, who operates at a leisurely pace under nearly all circumstances. Clutching my shopping list, I headed straight for the produce section as soon as I entered the grocery store. He decided to stop at the floral section. He picked out a bouquet, placed it in our shopping cart, and said, “This one is beautiful for you, Momma.” 

My son reminded me that love is a good reason to pause—and a recent study by psychologist Mirka Hintsanen and her colleagues reminds us all that experiencing love in childhood can help kids grow into compassionate adults.

For over three decades, researchers have followed over 2,700 three to 18 year olds in Finland as part of the ongoing Young Finns Study. At the start of the study in 1980, their parents completed questionnaires about their relationships with their children on two dimensions of love: warmth and acceptance. They measured warmth with items like, “I enjoy spending time with my child” and “My child enables me to fulfill myself.” The survey on acceptance measured parents’ tolerance and intolerance of their children and included three items: “I become irritated when being with my child,” “In difficult situations, my child is a burden,” and “My child takes too much of my time.”

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The researchers kept circling back to the same children as they grew into adults, from ages 20 to 50 years old, measuring their compassion with questions like, “It gives me pleasure to help others, even if they have treated me badly” and “I hate to see anyone suffer.”

Overall, the researchers found that compassion rose from young to mid-adulthood—and that this growth seemed to slow down between mid- to later adulthood. The current study also found that the children of emotionally warm parents grew into more compassionate adults. What’s more, this link held regardless of children’s gender, when they were born, their challenging behavior during childhood, their parent’s socioeconomic status, and their parents’ mental health.

Surprisingly, when these same factors were considered, parents’ acceptance of their children did not predict their children’s compassion in adulthood. According to this three-decade study, it was warmth that made the difference down the road.

These findings are in line with previous research linking greater parental warmth to greater empathy, sympathy, and caring in children, and they reinforce attachment theory research that suggests sensitive and responsive parenting may underpin kindness in our children. That makes sense, because children who are securely attached to their parents have a better understanding of emotions and have greater emotional agility—they manage and cope better with strong emotions. These are important abilities for compassion to flourish: recognizing that another person is suffering and having the capacity to relieve suffering in the presence of that intense emotional awareness. 

When the researchers compared parent-child relationships in younger (three- to nine-year-old) and older (12- to 18-year-old) children, they found that parents’ warmth led to adult compassion in both age groups, but it mattered even more for younger children compared to adolescents.

The practical implication: When children are very young, that’s when they most need your warm and loving embrace. The results also suggest that the early experience of love from parents has enduring implications for compassion in adults. “Parents should be given support and information on the significance of the warmth of parent-child-relationship[s] for the development of compassion in their children,” explain Hintsanen and her colleagues.

Later that afternoon, love was a good reason to pause again. During our bike ride, my preschooler stopped suddenly when he noticed an earthworm wriggling in a puddle on the bike path that remained after a rain storm. He called to me and said, “We can help him. Let’s put him in the dirt.” I joined him earnestly in his compassionate rescue effort—with love.

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