6 Ways to Teach Kids to Be Kind
I recently asked my friends and family, "When you think about instilling kindness in your kids, what do you mean by kindness?" They had many different responses: compassion, generosity, empathy, justice, alleviating suffering. But every answer involved an underlying consideration for others, rather than acting only out of self-interest. It makes sense that this is also the definition of humane, because kindness is the most fundamental expression of what it means to be a human being.
Kindness is about "seeing with your heart," explains Angela C. Santomero, author of Radical Kindness: The Life-Changing Power of Giving and Receiving and cocreator of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood. For our littlest kids, this might mean patting the back of a worried friend, waving to an elderly neighbor, or breaking a cookie in half to share with a younger brother. For older kids, kindness might be inviting a lonely classmate to join their lunch table, comforting someone who's sad or scared, or donating some of their allowance to a cause they care about.
Whatever it means to you, it's important to help nurture it in your children from a young age. Making our country a kinder place may seem daunting these days, but fostering compassion in your family is entirely doable. Just focus on the considerate habits of daily life, a few concrete actions, and a little reflection thrown in for good measure. Here's how to step up and commit to raising the next generation of truly good people.
Help Them Understand What Kindness Means
Even before your kids are old enough to act kindly, you can start talking about it. Empathy is hardwired in us from birth through what's known as the mirror-neuron system, and we intuitively feel what others feel, explains psychiatrist Kelli Harding, M.D., author of The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier With the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness. It's why your 2-year-old may burst into tears when she sees another toddler fall at the playground, and it's a perfect opportunity to articulate that experience for her: "You feel sad because you care about your friend and she hurt herself."
If empathy is understanding, then compassion is acting on that understanding. Kids' ability to do that develops a bit later. "As a child's brain develops, he can better separate you from I, and that's when compassion forms," says Dr. Harding. "Toddlers are very focused on me and mine, but you can gradually help your child think about we and us by using inclusive we language yourself," says developmental pediatrician Damon Korb, M.D. "For example, you might say, 'What can we do today that will be fun for all of us?' "
When kids are 3, 4, and 5, it's a good time to start having discussions about kindness, suggests Dr. Korb, and the Golden Rule is a perfect conversational launchpad. "We treat other people the way we would hope to be treated ourselves," you can explain to your preschooler. "You wouldn't want someone to tease you about your mosquito bites, so you shouldn't tease your cousin." Once she seems to grasp this, you can move on to the Platinum Rule, which is that we treat people the way that's best for them, even if that's different from what's best for us.
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To show what that means in real life, you might say to your 5-year-old, "Your brother's going to be tired after a whole day of second grade. Should we bring him a special snack?" When she says, "Yes! Raisins!" you can remind her that's her favorite snack and encourage her to remember his. She'll feel both kind and proud to hand him a bag of cheese crackers, even though she herself is not a fan. At the beach, you can say to your kindergartner: "We know you like to be buried up to your neck in sand, but your sister cries when she gets sand in her sandal. Do you think she'll like getting a bucket of it dumped over her bare legs?" To a child who's using the baby's foot as a microphone while shouting the alphabet song, you can point out, "Look at your brother's face. Does he look like he's having fun?"
Inspire Their Imagination
Thinking "What would that feel like?" is one of the most powerful habits we can instill in our children. "You can't be a compassionate person unless you have an active imagination—you have to be able to step into someone else's shoes," says Katherine Applegate, author of award-winning children's books, including The One and Only Ivan and Wishtree.
Pretend play is a great way for young kids to practice empathy. You could say to your child, "Your doll fell down and bumped her head! What do you think we should do for her?" As your kids get older, you can ask them to imagine more complicated real-life scenarios as you encounter them. "I point out differences to my kids without making any judgment, so they're able to form their own opinions," says Dr. Korb, a father of five. "I might say, 'I wonder what it would be like to sleep outside when it's cold.'" You can offer all sorts of similar opportunities for reflection: "Imagine being a kitten that was stuck up in a tree and wasn't able to climb down." "Imagine how hard it must be to get on the bus in a wheelchair—and how grateful you would feel that a smart engineer invented the lift to make that possible!"
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Over time, this type of thinking becomes automatic, and so does a child's response to it. When she sees a kid who forgot his lunch, she knows he's hungry, and she offers to share hers. She volunteers at a soup kitchen. She writes a letter to the firehouse, thanking firefighters for rescuing kittens. She makes eye contact with people in a wheelchair, and she offers them a smile.
Reading a book together is another easy way to connect with your child and experience someone else's life that might be very different from your own. "When we read, we imagine with our heart and soul and not just our brain," says Applegate. "Characters in a book often share their feelings in an even deeper way than they might if they were sitting right in front of you."
Model Kindness Everywhere You Go
When it comes to raising thoughtful kids, this is the most important thing we can do, says Dr. Harding. "We can't control their behavior, but we can look for ways to demonstrate kind behavior ourselves." Fortunately, kids are eager to copy us from a young age, so you can model kindness from the time they're babies. "After all, you want your 18-month-old to imitate hugging someone who's sad," says Dr. Korb. As they get older, your kids will watch how you treat people, from subtle interactions, such as putting your phone down to make eye contact and say thank you, to more tangible acts of kindness, like inviting a lonely person to share a holiday, bringing a meal to a sick neighbor, comforting the bereaved, and donating time and money to take care of people in need.
Of course, it matters how we treat our children too. As Dr. Harding puts it, "Our intuition tells us a lot about kindness." This means trusting empathy over whatever parenting "shoulds" are in your head. That might look like keeping your baby in your arms because she just wants to be held or like returning to the store to buy a little someone that Lion King pencil after all—not because your son is crying, although he is, but because you genuinely hadn't realized how important it was to him. Kindness also means giving your children, especially when there are siblings in the mix, a feeling of abundance—that there is enough love, praise, laughter, and attention to go around.
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It's also valuable for your kids to see you being kind to yourself, says Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., author of How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids. This means traditional sorts of self-care, such as getting enough sleep and seeking out support so that you're not parenting from a depleted place. But it also means giving yourself the benefit of the doubt, the same way you'd offer it to anyone else. If you make a mistake, instead of berating yourself, say, "Oh, well, it's okay—we all make mistakes."
Encourage Kind Habits
Help your children match the somewhat abstract concept of kindness with the many concrete verbs that enact it: sharing, volunteering, giving, including, comforting, supporting, championing, compromising, listening, and noticing when someone could use help—a classmate with a math problem, a family member with a chore, an older person who needs a seat on the bus. These habits intersect with etiquette, since gracious actions like saying please and thanking the school-bus driver also help cultivate kindness and make the world a happier place. Dr. Harding calls these small practices microkindnesses and says they add up to something enormous. Your kids can always ask themselves, "What can I do at this moment that could add kindness to the situation?"
Ideally, we want to develop a positive vibe around the practice of kindness, rather than scolding our kids when they make inevitable mistakes. So when your kids are kind, catch them at it—and reinforce their behavior: "What a kind thing to do! You gave your cupcake to your sister to make her happy!"
Understand That Kindness Isn’t Always Easy
We should remind ourselves and our kids that kindness is hard sometimes, says Dr. Naumburg. "It doesn't always flow out of you naturally—but that doesn't mean that you're not kind." It can be challenging to be generous with a sibling who's annoying you. It can be scary to stick up for a friend or a classmate who isn't being treated right. It can feel awkward to offer condolences to a grieving person. It can be confusing to know how to act with a person who's differently abled, either neurologically or physically.
All we can do is gently coach our kids to remember how other people might be feeling—and then encourage them to take responsibility for whatever ways they might screw up, since apologizing is itself a form of kindness. Plus, the more that children get in the habit of behaving kindly, the more natural it will become. "Kindness really is like a muscle," Dr. Naumburg explains. "The more you practice saying kind things, the easier it's going to be when it's hard."
Pay Attention to the Effects of Kindness
Help your children notice how it feels to be kind—and how other people respond. My own teenagers still remember a time long ago when they were given free Munchkins at Dunkin' Donuts because our server was so touched by their friendly politeness. "Kindness doesn't only have to be altruistic," my 19-year-old son said to me recently, and he's right. You can practice it for the rewards and because it feels good.
Similarly, you want your kids to notice when people are being kind to them, which will, in turn, engender gratitude. Think of kindness and gratitude as two strands that twist together into the helix of your child's happiness. In the long run, kindness will benefit everyone—the practitioners and the recipients—in a million different ways. That's what Santomero calls "the kindness ripple effect," and it couldn't matter more.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's December 2019 issue as "Raise Kind People."