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How to Create a Kind Kid

Kristen Finello
April 27, 2011

8 tips for teaching your child about empathy to help stop bullying.

Let's face it, bullying has become a national crisis. The "mean girl" mentality starts as early as age 4, and cyber-bullying is scarily terrorizing elementary students in their own homes.

As parents, it keeps us up at night. Is my child getting teased and not telling me? Would I know if she was the bully? Would he tell me if there was a problem? Is she really as kind as I think she is?

As the place where our children spend the most time, schools are now stepping in. Teaching empathy -- the ability to relate to another person's feelings and the motivation to act kindly toward that person - is become increasingly common as parents and schools look for ways to deal with issues such as bullying and school violence. "More and more schools are implementing programs that teach the ability to read and to address others' emotions appropriately," says Tonia Caselman, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Oklahoma School of Social Work in Tulsa and author of "Teaching Children Empathy, The Social Emotion". These programs go by different names -- character education, pro-social curriculum, bullying prevention -- but the goal is the same: To get kids thinking about the feelings of others and acting in a caring way.

Why Empathy Matters
"Empathy is an essential skill for building and maintaining relationships," says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a Princeton, New Jersey-based psychologist and coauthor of "Smart Parenting for Smart Kids". "It allows us to recognize and share in the joys, worries, sorrows and frustrations of others and to respond in caring ways. It also helps us to judge the impact of our actions on others so we can adjust our behaviors as needed." An added bonus: people with higher levels of empathy tend to have better grades in school, more friendships and stronger relationships.

What You Can Do
"Some people tend to naturally be more empathic than others but empathy can be learned," says Dr. Caselman. "In fact, parents can do a lot to help their child's empathy development."

Here are eight strategies that can help you teach kindness to your kids.

  1. Be Responsive
    "Research shows that kids who have sensitive parents grow up to have more empathy toward others," says Dr. Caselman. Responding to your baby's cries, your toddler's boo-boos and acknowledging your child's feelings builds a stable emotional base that boosts your child's ability to feel for others.

  2. Name Emotions
    "Helping your child develop a good 'feelings vocabulary' will enable her to identify feelings within herself and others," according to Dr. Caselman. One way to do this is to let her hear you use feeling words. For example, you might note, "I feel disappointed because my friend cancelled our lunch plans" or "I'm proud of myself for finishing my project early."

  3. Use Books and Movies to Spark Conversations
    "Discussing the feelings of characters is a nonthreatening way to help children learn to observe feelings," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. You can pose questions such as "How do you think he felt when that happened? How can you tell?" and "Has something like that ever happened to you?"

  4. Practice Picking up Nonverbal Cues
    "A lot of emotional communication is nonverbal, so being empathic means we need to be able to interpret facial expressions, body language and tone of voice," explains Dr. Kennedy-Moore. Her suggestion: Turn off the sound on a TV show or movie and challenge your child to figure out what's happening by observing the characters' facial expressions and body language.

  5. Look for Opportunities to Reach out to Others
    If another family loses a loved one or is celebrating an accomplishment, have your child help you send a card. "The ritual of recognizing other people's pain and celebrations helps kids develop empathy," says Dr. Caselman.

  6. Encourage Volunteering
    Getting out in the community and helping others is a great way to develop understanding for other people's situations. Read about these 6 Tips for Getting Your Kids to Volunteer.

  7. Take Advantage of Teachable Moments
    The next time your child displays some less than kind behavior (hey, it happens!), seize the opportunity. "Instead of talking about how a behavior was bad, help your child see what the experience was like for the other person," says Dr. Caselman. For example, you might ask, "How do you think Emma felt when you said she couldn't play with you?" to get a discussion rolling. And learn about these 19 Things You Should Never Say to Kids.

  8. Be on the Lookout for Acts of Kindness
    "When your child does something kind or helpful point out the impact of his act on others," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "This allows your child to feel healthy pride and also encourages awareness of others' feelings." Be sure to speak up the next time your child includes a sibling in a playdate or helps out at home.

Once you have the tools to teach your child empathy, the best time to start is now! "Like any other skill, the earlier one begins, the better developed that skill will be," says Dr. Caselman. And don't be surprised if teaching your little compassion pays off in the form of a tighter bond between the two of you. Acknowledging your child's perspective, making her feel safe to share her feelings and modeling kindness and caring -- all things you'll do while teaching empathy -- can add up to a better relationship as your child grows.

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