How to teach kids to be kinder

According to a national survey conducted by Harvard University, America’s youth understand the importance of working hard and achieving great things…but they don’t always see the same value in being kind. The vast majority of youth (80%) surveyed ranked personal achievement or happiness as most important, whereas only 20% chose concern for others as their top priority.

These statistics are reflected in the bullying, sexual harassment, and cheating that are so common in our schools and communities today. In fact, 57% of high school students surveyed agreed that “in the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.” This self-centered point of view is concerning to parents and educators alike. While we want our kids to follow the American dream, I don’t believe we want them to do it by stepping on the heads of all those around them.

How, then do we help our kids to recognize the importance of being kind and caring for others?

It starts with empathy. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Beyond that, empathy means using that understanding to act with care and respect towards others. Once our children develop the capacity to see life from the perspective of another person, they are more likely to care how their actions affect others.

Parents can help their children develop empathy, even at a young age. Here are some practical suggestions:

Identify emotions

Does your toddler know what “sad” or “angry” looks like? For young children who still have limited abilities to abstractly see the world from another person’s point of view, it’s important to help them build a vocabulary to describe their (and others’) emotions. Say things like, “Bobby is sad because his balloon popped,” or “ Jane is angry because she wants a turn on the swings.” These basic observations are the building blocks of more complex empathy later on.

Another helpful activity is to practice labeling emotions by making faces in the mirror (or take selfies!) to show various emotions. Act out sad, angry, surprised, happy, afraid, etc. The simple act of making these faces reinforces those emotions in the brain and can help children feel empathy for others when they see those expressions in the future.

Be a model

If you want your kids to use a kind tone of voice and respect you, ask yourself honestly, “Am I kind to my kids?” For me, the answer to this question is sometimes tough to swallow. As a parent of two rambunctious little boys, I occasionally struggle with patience. When I am tired and stressed, it can be so hard to keep cool after my toddler dumps out a box of cereal or when my four-year-old dawdles on the way to bed. However, giving into our own frustration diminishes everything we are trying to teach our kids about being kind.

No amount of lecturing will make your children be kind if they don’t see that example from you. Find strategies to help yourself calm down, practice responding with love and respect to your child (try this strategy for observe and describe), and apologize when you fail (because we all have those days). Remember, “Parents who provide a warm, positive environment for their children, and who provide a model for being sensitive to others’ needs and emotions…are most likely to have more empathic children.” (source)

Make your values clear

What would your kids say you value most in life? Many of the youth in Harvard’s study asserted that their parents were prouder of them for getting good grades than for being a caring community member. Ouch. As parents, we need to clearly tell our children that it’s important to us that they be kind. How? Just say it: “The most important thing to me is that you are kind” or “Whatever else you do today, make sure you are kind.”

Find small teachable moments in your conversations with your children. Ask them questions about who they played with at school, if there were any new students, or who they helped that day. A few weeks ago, my son was telling me about a boy in his class who is in a wheelchair. I asked him what the boy’s name was, but he said he didn’t know because the boy doesn’t talk. I invited my son to ask his teacher the boy’s name and then say hello to him. He did, and now he regularly comes home and talks about this friend.Talking to kids about their interactions with others will help them to think more about those relationships…and hopefully improve them.

Practice during play time

Pretend play is a great time to practice showing empathy in a non-threatening way. If you’re playing doctor, talk about how your stuffed animal patients are feeling (e.g. – “Mr. Bear looks sad. How can we help him feel better?”). When you’re playing house, let your child be the parent and practice caring for her baby doll. (e.g. – “Baby Kay looks hungry. Let’s feed her…You’re taking such good care of her!”) Make it fun and keep your suggestions gentle, natural extensions of play.

Books provide another simple way to explore empathy with kids. As you read, discuss what is happening to the characters and how they might be feeling about their situation. Look for non-verbal cues in the pictures to show what the characters are feeling, and ask for your child’s thoughts (e.g. – “Uh oh. His boat went down the drain. How do you think he feels?”) Learning to identify these visual cues in stories will make kids more adept at reading similar cues in real life.

For older children, use news stories and trending videos on social media as conversation starters about world events, and discuss the perspectives of the different people involved.

The result

Historian Howard Zinn said, “We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

As we help our children develop empathy in small ways, they will grow to respect those around them. When they learn to consider others’ perspectives, kids will naturally become more considerate. Over time, our simple efforts will be multiplied, as will theirs. We may not change the whole world overnight with a little bit of kindness, but perhaps we can nudge it in the right direction.

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