Nurturing kindness in our children is an important factor in teaching them how to be happy and healthy, especially when influences from their peers, family members, and what they see on TV can lead to bad habits.
I truly believe that empathetic kids have the power to change the world. They are the ones with compassion for their fellow man, with an emotional intelligence that can make a positive change in not just the communities around them but in teaching kindness to the next generation.
But it can take time for children to develop a sense of empathy, which means it is never too early to start teaching kids to be kind. But no matter when you start, the important thing is that you do. An older child might take longer in his social-emotional development than a younger child, but don’t let that stop you.
In a world where bullying is rampant, it is vital that we nurture empathy in our children while we have them in our homes. This will ensure not only their own happiness but will help them to be a role model to other kids, too. Sometimes, all it takes is one child standing in the gap for change to take root.
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Encouraging kindness in children:
Kids can recognize hypocrisy a mile away and almost always balk at it, no matter how valuable the lesson we’re trying to teach. Kindness needs to start with us. Children will learn kind behavior if they see it modeled in their parents’ lives, so it’s important that our parenting is peppered with gratitude and caring for others.
I can always tell my own attitude needs adjusting when my daughters are getting snippy with each other. Because when I am patient and kind in my words and behavior, they tend to mirror it with each other.
There are many ways we can model kindness but these are some things that we have done in our own family (or other families I know) and they work well for us:
Yep, just simply putting away the phones, turning off the tv, and spending time talking is a simple way to incorporate purposeful time with each other. Every time I put my phone away when one of my daughters comes in to talk with me, our time together is more meaningful and she feels very loved.
When I fail to show her the respect of my attention, it usually ends in frustration on both our parts because I’m distracted and she ends up having to repeat herself which confirms my attention was elsewhere. Even if she needs to wait a moment while I finish what I was working on, she appreciates my undivided attention afterwards.
Put simply, talking with eye contact makes another person feel like you genuinely care in what they have to say and we all like to feel that way, don’t we?
- When you are upset, find a kinder response
Too many times I rattle off frustration without thinking how it might make me look to my kids or how it might affect my family. And it often makes situations worse. But when I take the time to find a kinder way to get my point across, the mood changes like magic.
- Practice putting others first
When my kids were younger and were having a hard time getting along, I read somewhere that something simple like taking in a sibling’s plate after dinner can foster kindness. And it works. It really is amazing how little acts of kindness begin with little acts of selflessness.
So finding little ways to take care of each other is excellent practice in being kind, but it also bonds the family closer. My daughters are much more loving (and selfless) with each other when they’ve been the recipient of random acts of kindness from one of their siblings.
- Serve in the community
From the time my girls were little, I took them with me when I would visit nursing homes every Friday. They learned how to love the elderly and show kindness to those who might not even have the capacity to respond. They learned how to temper their behavior based on those they were with, which was really quite remarkable to see as a parent. I never taught them that, they learned that just by focusing on others needs above their own.
It wasn’t always easy taking young children with me every week, but I’m so thankful I did!
- Adopt a family member
This is so fun and kids love it. You can make a list of family members and each person draws them out of a hat and that person becomes “theirs” for a day/week/etc. It’s a fun way to teach kids how to watch other people and how to tailer a good deed based on what “their” family member might be going through or need.
It can be as simple as a baby sibling who needs a diaper change or a Grandma who could use a letter in the mail. At the end of that time period, you can all discuss how it went, what cues moved you to do certain things, etc.
It’s a valubale learning process with a win/win result: someone receives love and the child grows their empathy. (I definitely think parents should get in on the action, too!)
Michele Borba has some excellent books on the topic of empathy; I highly recommend you check them out!
Use Strategies for Encouraging Behavior Change
If you are noticing too much negative behavior in your children, you’re going to need a strategy to turn it around. An easy place to start is to have a family meeting and talk it over.
Explain to your children how you would like some things/behaviors to change and make sure you are including yourself in that equation, as well. You could talk about reasons why your family might be struggling in this area, ie stress, not enough sleep, etc. Kids need to see that parents struggle, too, so make sure to add in things that keep you from being as kind as you’d like to be.
Then brainstorm some ideas together on how you can incorporate more kindness into your daily lives. Go beyond finding solutions to your problem areas and come up with ideas that you as a family can do to be more kind. It doesn’t have to be anything extensive; a small kind act can have just as much of an impact.
These are some quick and easy suggestions to get you going:
Teach Kids to Recognize Cues
The best way to teach kids to notice when someone is having a bad day is to teach them about empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. (Check out this TED talk on Empathy, it’s excellent!)
This can be achieved in many ways, one of which is to people watch with your child, so they can see people in different moods. (Or adopting a family member!)
Have your child think about how they personally act and feel when they’re sad, upset, etc. so they can learn to recognize it in someone else. But another thing that I feel is important to point out, is that sometimes people are good at hiding their emotions and sometimes we need to look for the need, instead.
For instance, someone might come across as perfectly happy but their mom is in the hospital and they’re worried. A little bit of kindness could go a long way towards getting that person through a tough time.
So teaching them to look for circumstances, not just outward emotion, can be super helpful in seeking out those who need some kindness, which in turn, helps your child be more kind.
Set Clear Expectations and Rules
I have always been able to empathize with people to the point of seeming naive. I like to think the best of people. Has that hurt me in the past? Yes. Deeply. But has it made me change that part of me? No. Because I believe love and kindness can do more for others (and myself) than being leary of everyone I meet.
With that said, there are situations from which you will want to protect your child. For instance, getting taken advantage of. (You can read more about protecting your child from predators on this post of safety tips every parent should know. It really is a must-read!)
But what about those who like to take advantage of a person’s kindness? Sadly, you often don’t know who those people are until you’re already invested. And when you find yourself in this situation, it can disillusion you and cause you to think twice about being kind to the next person, which we don’t want to happen.
But there are ways to make wise choices with just a little bit of research and this will help keep you from getting hurt as often.
For example, when I was a teenager, I overheard a friend’s mom talking about how desperately they needed something. Her dire situation wrenched my heart and I told my mom that day that I wanted to give her all my savings so she could have what she needed.
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My mom was wise and reached out to a friend who knew the family better and he told my mom that they were already offered that same item for free, they only had to pick it up. They had declined the offer because they wanted something nicer.
I learned a valuable lesson that day. Some people will paint desperate pictures but very rarely is it ever the case. In fact, some of those people have made a career off the generosity of others.
This doesn’t mean we should act like Scrooge and distrust everyone, it just means we should be wiser in how we help those who need it. Because people really do need it. And when I honestly don’t know if someone genuinely needs help or not? I give anyways. For my own sake and to be a role model for my kids.
It’s not my job to vet everyone who needs a little love and kindness, but it is my job to offer charity, so if I err on the side of caring too much, that’s totally fine with me.
Keep Conversations Focused on Kindness
Nurturing kindness takes time. It’s not a light switch that we can turn on and everyone is naturally kind. It’s more of a lifestyle change, which takes effort and purpose. But that also means it will stay with us much longer and change us for the better.
One way to keep up the good work is to talk about it often.
When siblings are not getting along, sit them down and talk about how being kind could have solved the issue before it even became one. Or when you come across someone grumpy, talk about how that person needs a bit of love.
I love to tell my girls the story of a man who used to come into the store where I worked as a teenager. None of the employees wanted anything to do with him; he was always rude and gruff with everyone. I took that as a challenge.
I loved on that man every chance I got. Eventually, months later, my hard work paid off and I received my first smile from him. I found out much later that he used to be a pleasant man but losing his wife to cancer broke him and he became very bitter.
I moved off to college shortly after I received that smile but I like to think I made a difference in his life. He certainly made one in mine!
Praise and Reward Good Behavior
I am a huge advocate of praising and lifting someone up. I think kids, especially when they are younger, need that affirmation from their parents.
However, I do not always reward good behavior, not regularly, at least. Because I want them doing what they do because it’s the right thing to do, not because they’re going to get a treat for it.
But once in a while when I catch one of my kids being extra kind, I like to slip them a piece of chocolate or some such thing to show them that I saw what they did and I’m proud of them. Even as teenagers, they love that unexpected treat.
But I almost always verbally acknowledge kindness. Because even us adults like to hear we’re doing ok in this thing called life.
In conclusion, children are the future and it is important they learn to be kind to others and learn a sense of empathy, compassion, and understanding. But it is up to us to nurture that in them. The earlier we start, the more it will soak in and become a part of who they are.
If you want to check out some related resources, Caring Common is a great place to start!
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