More than having a child who runs the fastest or who brings home the best grades, most parents will tell you they want their child to be kind. But why is kindness — surely one of the buzziest words to enter parents’ vernacular in recent years — so important?
“Kindness is a simplified version of empathy; it’s taking into consideration how others may be feeling and not acting purely out of self-interest,’” explains Lauren Schapiro, a psychotherapist with Liz Morrison Therapy in New York City. “It’s crucial children learn this, as it’s part of the foundation of how they function in their environment and in the world. Being kind helps kids respond to others in the classroom and beyond.”
But how can you teach your kids to be kind? Is talking about it enough or is there more to it? Here’s what the experts and kindness-crusading parents have to say on the subject.
How do you explain kindness to a child?
Unlike the sex talk, the kindness talk isn’t generally a rite of passage. While parents and caregivers can (and should) talk to kids about being kind, children need to regularly experience kindness in order to truly grasp it — and they should first be on the receiving end.
“Children learn best from their own experiences, particularly their experiences with their parents and caregivers,” explains Dr. Wendy Denham, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. “Receiving kindness themselves in the form of reflective, emotional attunement, starting in infancy, helps them understand both what they are feeling and that their feelings can be cared for.”
What’s “emotional attunement”? Essentially, it’s empathy and being compassionate and “in tune” with how your child is feeling, particularly when they’re feeling vulnerable or distressed. “An example of this is a child crying after a fall,” Denham says. “Being met with ‘don’t cry’ or a ‘brush it off’ response leaves a child feeling alone and possibly ashamed for a developmentally ordinary emotional response. A reflective response in a supportive tone — such as ‘oh, you fell over and hurt yourself, I’m sorry’ — helps children feel like all their feelings are safe, and in turn, will cause them to have compassionate responses to other people as they get older.”
More bluntly: You can talk to your little kids about kindness ad nauseum, but it’s not going to sink in unless you’re consistently doling it out in the form of compassion. “No amount of lectures on kindness will be as effective as modeling,” notes Sean Grover, a psychotherapist in New York City and author of “When Kids Call the Shots.” “There’s a reason the saying goes: Children hear about 10% of what you say and absorb 90% of what you do.”
Teaching kids to be kind: Is it possible?
Cristiano Ronaldo’s backheel, Mariah Carey’s vocal range — there are a number of things that can’t be taught to kids. But fortunately, you can teach your kids to be kind.
“Children come with unique temperaments and personalities, but kindness is teachable to every child,” says Grover. “However, keep in mind, children internalize their parents. So parents who are empathetic, listen well and are generally gentle and thoughtful have a much greater possibility of engendering these qualities in their children.”
Are you teaching kindness to kids?
According to Grover, the following traits are signs of kindness in kids:
- Reflective thinking.
- Being charitable.
- Having community consciousness.
- Having social confidence.
Depending on your child’s age, it may be harder to gauge if they’re heeding your messages. (There aren’t too many 2-year-old activists out there.) That said, if your child’s thinking is beginning to expand beyond the me, myself and I mentality — even if it’s only on occasion — they’re trending in the right direction
“Children are still learning to regulate their feelings and it is developmentally unrealistic to expect children aged 6 and under to always share toys or not have big feelings if they don’t get something that they want,” Denham says. “However, we can see the foundations of kindness beginning in young children in the way they may give us a hug or a kiss, gently stroke a pet or even just stop and be curious about another child who is upset.”
And when your child does the latter, that’s your cue to jump in. “If your child notices another person having a feeling, help them link the feeling to the behavior,” notes Denham. “Saying ‘oh, he’s crying, he must feel sad’ is a way to help children build their awareness and also understand that having big feelings is an ordinary part of being a person.”
As children grow, it’s easier to tell whether or not they’re genuinely getting it. “As toddlers develop, they are very focused on me and what’s mine, but as they learn more about kindness, they are able to be more inclusive of others in their thinking,” Schapiro says. “These are the traits to look out for in a child. They will begin to think about ‘being in someone else’s shoes.’”
Why you should be working to raise kind humans
Take one quick stroll on any social media platform and you’ll see that the world already has its fair share of hate-spreading folks. But in addition to not wanting to raise another, well, jerk, there are a number of personal and community-based benefits that come with being kind.
“Altruism is a powerful force that all parents should harness,” says Grover, adding that children who engage in altruistic behaviors experience the following:
- A greater sense of personal value.
- Increased self-esteem.
- An understanding of the world’s unfair social and economic complexities.
“By being altruistic, kids learn that genuine kindness means reaching beyond their needs and offering a helping hand to those less fortunate,” he says.
How to teach your kids to be kind
The million dollar question! While the best way to raise kind humans is to be one yourself, here are a few practical ways to instill kindness in kids:
Work on regulating your emotions
Find yourself flying off the handle often or getting annoyed easily? You should work on that. “Kindness is connected to our ability to regulate our feelings, as it’s dependent on being able to hold someone else’s experience in mind, not just our own,” Denham says. “If we have not done our own work taking care of our feelings, it may be hard to take care of someone else’s.”
Engage in small acts of kindness
You don’t need to be the Dalai Lama to teach kindness to your kids. Little acts of kindness count, too. “Letting someone merge in front of you on the freeway, letting an elderly person go in front of you in a long line at the store, putting your own needs a little bit to the side to support another — these are all ways to offer lived experiences of kindness,” Denham says.
“Children learn through watching behavior, so if you are demonstrating kindness, a child will pick up on that and imitate the behavior,” explains Schapiro. “Maintain eye contact when in conversation with someone and don’t be on your phone; say thank you to people who work in the service industry; introduce yourself to a new neighbor and bring them a treat — these small etiquettes are important.”
Read the right books
Kristen Mosier, a mom of three from Cranford, New Jersey and one of the founders of the Cranford Unity Project, a local organization that works to promote inclusivity and help amplify the voices marginalized groups, makes sure her kids’ library is stocked with fiction and non-fiction books that feature characters from different backgrounds, cultures and circumstance. “I hope that by hearing about diverse experiences, they begin to value and gain empathy for each unique story, while recognizing their own emotional experience,” she says. “These books also open the door for important discussions that lead to an increase in their learning and understanding.”
Take care of yourself
“Don’t just show kindness to others; know how to be kind to yourself as well,” Denham points out. “Letting your kids see you taking care of yourself helps model self care and self compassion. This begins with reflective self-awareness in the form of ‘I had a hard day at work today, what can I take off my plate tonight?’”
“Help your child get involved in neighborhood projects, such as food pantries and other volunteer opportunities, like supporting recycling or fundraising for charities,” Grover says, adding that it can be an especially good option for older kids who seem to have missed the boat.
“I worked with a teenager who was extremely disrespectful to his parents and had a toxic sense of entitlement. His parents were deeply discouraged by his behavior and no amount of therapy seemed to be making a difference,” recalls Grover. “One summer, they forced him to take a job helping children with severe disabilities.”
Grover notes that the job entailed carrying the children down to the beach, holding them up in the water and helping feed them during meals. When shopping, Grover explains, the teen pushed the kids in wheelchairs and had to navigate crowded malls where “no one seemed to care” how hard life was for these kids.
“That summer profoundly changed him,” Grover says. “He cried in my office about how unfair life was for these children. He suddenly had an appreciation for his privileged life, his parent’s generosity and his health and physical mobility — things he had never considered before. He matured massively, and the experience changed the course of his life.”