Kindness is the virtue of thinking of others — caring about their feelings, needs, and happiness. As parents, we want our children to be kind, thoughtful, and empathetic to those around them — and it can be hard to know how to respond most effectively when they are not.
Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist with the graduate school of education, ran the Making Caring Common project, aimed to help teach kids to be kind. In the study, about 80 percent of the youth said their parents were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others. The interviewees were also three times more likely to agree that “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”
You may not think that you need to be teaching your child to be kind. However, like reading and writing, emotional intelligence doesn’t come naturally to all children. “Children are not born simply good or bad and we should never give up on them. They need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood,” the researchers write.
Some children miss the subtle signs that they are upsetting those around them. Some children have a hard time putting themselves in other people’s shoes. Some children have a hard time knowing how to be kind. So, how do you help teach your kids to be kind and not turn into a bully? There are some easy steps to build empathy and kindness in your children.
1. Make caring for others a priority
It’s not enough to tell kids that kindness is important – they need to hear that it’s the most important. Parents tend to prioritize their children’s happiness and achievements over their children’s concern for others. But children need to hear from parents that caring for others is a top priority. Make sure that everyone in the family is held to high standards in relation to the way they treat each other. They should learn to balance their needs with the needs of others, whether it’s passing the ball to a teammate or deciding to stand up for friends who is bullied.
A big part of that is holding your child to high ethical expectations, such as honoring her commitments, even if it makes she unhappy. She can be angry, grumpy, stressed or tired, but speaking to anyone disrespectfully is a no-go.
She’ll slip up and so will you – none of us are beacons of kindness all the time, but when you snap or hiss, apologise as soon as you can so she can see how it’s done and that it’s really okay to admit that we get it wrong sometimes.
2. Correct aggression — clearly and with feeling
A study of toddlers 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 years of age observed how they responded to another toddler’s crying on the playground. About a third of the toddlers offered comfort or help; the rest did not.
The compassionate toddlers, the researchers found, had mothers who were warm and nurturing. These mothers had also taken it very seriously if their own child had hurt someone in the past. When your child’s behavior is affecting those around her – point it out. Let your child know how she affecting others without shaming her. For example, a 2-year-old girl who responded compassionately to the crying child on the playground had once pulled another little girl’s hair. When she did that, her mother had responded: “You hurt Amy!” (pointing out the consequence) “Pulling hair hurts!” (an instructive generalization) “NEVER pull hair” (a small moral absolute). This combination of clear teaching and emotional concern sent a strong message to the child: Hurting is a big deal. As a result, this child was subsequently disposed to take it seriously and respond compassionately when she saw another child crying on the playground.
3. Guide children in managing destructive feelings
Often the ability to care for others is overwhelmed by anger, shame, envy, or other negative feelings. If your child is angry, let her know that you can see this and hold her in the space without having to change it or solve the original problem. Just hold the feeling. We need to teach children that all feelings are okay, but some ways of dealing with them are not helpful. Children need our help learning to cope with these feelings in productive ways. Here’s a simple way to teach your kids to calm down: ask your child to stop, take a deep breath through the nose and exhale through the mouth, and count to five. Practice when your child is calm. Then, when you see her getting upset, remind her about the steps and do them with her. After a while she’ll start to do it on her own so that she can express her feelings in a helpful and appropriate way.
4. Teach your children the joy of helping others
Be an example for your child and help strangers, friends and family. Let her know that it feels good to help others – even if you get nothing back. Set up opportunities for her to help others as a family. Ask her to help with dinner, feed the family pet, read a story to a younger sibling, help with lunches.
On the other hand, it’s also important to help children learn to care about someone outside the circle of their family and friends. Children need to learn to zoom in, by listening closely and attending to those in their immediate circle, and to zoom out, by taking in the big picture and considering the many perspectives of the people they interact with daily, including those who are vulnerable. It helps them to be aware of their shared humanity. Talk to them about what’s happening in different cities, countries and cultures and about different social issues. Let them see you show concern when kids on the other team get hurt, or ask them how the new child in class is going and what they can do to help them feel included, even if it’s just making an effort to say hello. Make sure they’re friendly and grateful to everyone who helps them, whether it’s the waiter, the bus driver, the tuckshop helper or the young guy who packs your groceries.
5. Read books that cultivate kindness
With all kids and especially with kids for whom kindness doesn’t come naturally, good books can be one of our best allies. There are scores of books, fiction and nonfiction, with strong character themes. The more kids read them – with us or on their own – the more they’ll be immersed in goodness and attracted to it.
Books take them into other worlds where they can learn from the good and bad examples of the story characters, vicariously experience the consequences of the moral choices these characters make, and then transfer those learnings to their own lives. An 11-year-old boy, after reading C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, talked about Edmund:
“He was deceitful by lying to his siblings. I’ve been deceitful by lying about breaking something — I blamed it on my brother. I wouldn’t do that again.”We can facilitate this kind of transfer from books to life by pausing during a read-aloud to reflect on times when we and our child may have shown the virtue or vice exhibited by a character in the story. Children’s books that depict peer cruelty and exclusion and everyone’s need for friendship, such as The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes and Wonder by R. J. Palacio, are especially good for this kind of parent-child sharing of experiences. Also refer to our article of “The best books to teach our kids to be kind” as another important resource, where you can show many inspiring ways people do good for others. This gives us an opening for talking with our kids about how we too can make a positive difference in the world.
Most of us would be shocked if we heard our children were treating others unkindly. However, there’s no shame in having a child who is a bully, the shame lies in suspecting your child is a bully and ignoring it. If we want our children to be caring, respectful and responsible people, we have to raise them that way. With love, attention and guidance, even the harshest bully can become someone kind of wonderful.