Developmental experts explain how children learn to be kind from preschool to grade school, and offer ways parents can encourage their budding caring qualities.

By Alice Oglethorpe
October 07, 2020
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If you’re aiming to raise an especially gentle, loving child, you might feel a surge of concern when they refuse to share, get mad when you veto their wish to swing from the curtains, or scream that they hate you. But here’s the thing about kindness: It doesn’t develop overnight. “To be kind requires a pretty complex series of thoughts and behaviors,” says Dona Matthews, Ph.D., coauthor of Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids. “You need to be able to identify another person’s emotions, feel a connection to that person, and then act on it.”

While every little one will move through this process at their own pace, here are the major kindness milestones to look for—and some easy ways to nudge your kid along.

Age 3

Kids Get Why Feelings Occur

While infants can perceive other people’s emotions by 6 months, it isn’t until well into toddlerhood that a kid’s actual acts of kindness start to emerge. Why? Because they’re still learning cause and effect. “By age 3, they’ve figured out that certain events make someone feel a certain way,” says Dr. Matthews. “They know that if someone doesn’t get a cookie they want, they feel sad or angry, and if they do get the treat, they feel happy.” Help solidify this connection by labeling emotions your child experiences and explaining why they might feel that way: “You’re happy because you wanted to go outside, and now here we are!”

Age 4-5

Intentional Kindness Ramps Up 

During this period, your child strengthens what’s known as the theory of mind, or the ability to grasp their own mental state and that of others. In addition, big, exciting connections are being made in brain areas responsible for social awareness. One result of this perfect storm of neurology? Your child starts to show kindness consistently. Researchers from the University of Virginia found that after being given a stash of stickers, most 3-year-olds won’t share with another child—but most 4-year-olds will. “Around age 4, kids make a mental shift,” says Maysa Akbar, Ph.D., author of Beyond Ally and a licensed psychologist with the YaleChild Study Center. “They want to engage in a more meaningful way, and you see more sharing, holding hands, and hugging.” When you witness your child being kind in these ways, really (and vocally) celebrate it.

Ages 5-6

Kids Grasp the Idea of Community

Compassionate acts don’t occur just between individuals; they are also done to benefit a group. At this age, your kid might be more eager to do things like clear the table so the family can head to the couch for movie night. “Feeling like an important member of a group helps kids feel valuable, which leads them to act more kindly,” says Dr. Matthews. Encourage this by giving them little chores starting from as young as age 2; even having them put a single toy away is groundwork. This age is also when your child becomes more adept in showing appreciation. “You’ll notice them speaking in a kinder tone, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ more consistently,” says Dr. Akbar. As always, you’ll want to reinforce that good behavior to keep it coming.

Age 7-8

Kids Learn to Put Others First

As children get older, their acts of kindness grow more sophisticated, but this is the last real childhood milestone, and it involves the trickiest task of all. It’s one thing to be kind when it costs nothing, but it’s harder to overcome your own disappointment or sadness to be good to someone else. That’s why this milestone doesn’t usually happen until age 7 or 8 (thanks to the maturing of the frontal lobe that occurs then).

A classic example: being able to congratulate a kid who beat you in a game. As in so many instances, this is where it’s key for parents to model what they’d like to see. “Your kids are watching,” says Dr. Akbar. “If they see you being generous even when it’s difficult to do so, they will be more likely to mimic the behavior.” So the next time your kid beats you at checkers, make a show of being a good sport. You’ll all win in the long run.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's November 2020 issue as “How Kids Become Kind, Step-By-Step.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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