7 Ways to Fix Your Child's Unkind Behavior

On the road to altruism, there are sure to be speed bumps. Here’s how to correct not-so-nice behavior when you see it.

Cookies and milk. Bert and Ernie. Discipline and kindness? That last pairing may sound like a less-than-dynamic duo—who wants to "punish" a kid into being good?—but the two go hand in hand. "The word discipline comes from the Latin word for 'instruction,'" says Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and author of How to Raise Kind Kids. "In a character-based approach to parenting, discipline is used to teach habits like kindness and respect." To be truly effective, it takes a multipronged plan with consequences that differ from the same old time-outs and talking-tos.

As with any habit, consistency and lots of practice are the main tricks for success. Here are seven ways that you can help your children learn to be kind.

little girl with stocking hat over her eyes scrunching up her face
Daymion Mardel

Set Clear Expectations.

It's not so much laying ground rules, per se, as creating a mission statement that establishes kindness as a non-negotiable part of your family's ethos. "Have a talk about what you stand for," says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me World. You can even create a cute motto like "We're the Caring Carlsons!"

It may help to give your kids clear examples of what you mean by kindness. For instance, if your kids are struggling with bickering, then you can sit them down and explain that respectfully listening to one another is an example of a simple act of kindness that your family will work on.

A few examples of family expectations could be:

  • We do not use hurtful language such as name-calling.
  • We use polite manners such as saying please and thank you.
  • We do not take out our negative moods on other people.

Reinforce Your Family Values.

Look for opportunities to discuss that ethos—pointing out scenarios that crop up in movies, books, and real-life—so your kids develop a concept of what's considered OK. If one cartoon character hurts another, discuss the implications and why it's unacceptable. (The kids may not love the interruption, but trust that they do hear you.) Be sure to practice what you preach: If you sing the praises of altruism but then hulk out on anyone who cuts the carpool line, your kids won't likely put your lessons into action.

Similarly, when you catch your kids demonstrating kindness, offer up praise to help reinforce your values. It could be a simple high-five, hug, or even a quick chat to tell your child why you're proud of their behavior.

Tackle Infractions.

With a solid framework in place, you're armed to correct missteps. Whether your child mistreats you, a sibling, a peer, or the family pet, address the behavior swiftly and definitively. "Use a strong, firm, non-yelling statement that spells out what went wrong," Dr. Borba explains. "Say, 'That was unkind. You just pulled your friend's hair. How do you think she feels? How would you feel if that happened to you?'"

Appeal to their empathy.

Even as kids mature and unkind acts become more verbal and less physical, explaining that they've hurt someone is still your best move. "Most kids don't set out to do harm," says J. Kiley Hamlin, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia who studies child behavior. "If they're able to grasp what they're doing to the other person, the cost becomes greater than the benefit to them."

Here, modeling the behavior you want to see in your kids means watching your language too. Try to be mindful of what you say and how you speak about others. For example, it is super easy to mutter an insult at another driver in traffic or to call a celebrity or politician an unkind word. But with little ears picking up everything you say, it becomes even more important to speak in the manner you wish your child to speak.

Help Them Make Amends.

Of course, acknowledgment isn't enough; restitution is also in order. "Kids need to learn that when they do something wrong, they do something to make up for it," Dr. Lickona says. "First, they should apologize, then ask, 'What can I do to make it better?'" You can help brainstorm—maybe they'll end up writing an "I'm sorry" card or use allowance money to replace a smashed toy—but they'll often hit the mark themselves. In some cases, it may be enough to request a redo: "Can you please try that again in a kinder, more respectful way?"

Enforce Consequences.

Depending on the seriousness of the incident, an additional punishment may be required to make a lasting impression. Avoid the impulse to leverage whatever they hold dear, like screen time or dessert, in favor of a tailored response. (If big brother pushed little brother off a bike, then it tracks that his own wheels should be taken away; banning video games is just arbitrary.) It's the classic "make the punishment fit the crime" approach, and it works. "The consequence should be relevant in both kind and strength," Dr. Hamlin cautions. "If it's unfair, random, or unnecessarily punitive, it could backfire."

Sometimes in the heat of the moment, it helps if the parents step back and take a deep breath too. You won't be able to calmly and fairly dole out a consequence if you feel angry. Besides, if you angrily declare no dessert ever again or that you're taking away screentime for a week, you might be teaching your child that punishment is an act of anger and not a well-thought-out consequence.

Tell Them They're Good.

No matter what, keep reiterating how kindhearted your kids are, even in the bleakest of moments; the message will sink in. "Tell them, 'You are a kind person, and that wasn't kind,'" Dr. Borba says. "Ultimately, kids will act the way they see themselves to be."

Someone once said that the words we use to talk to children can become the words of their inner worlds—that little voice in their heads. Take every opportunity to tell your kids that they are good people and that their effort to be kind is noticed and appreciated by you.

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