When you think about instilling kindness in your kids, you may think about teaching them generosity, empathy, and compassion, with the underlying factor being considerate to others. Kindness is an essential tool to teach our children, but sometimes, kindness gets lost in the shuffle in the rush of daily life.
Research backs this up. Although a majority of parents list kindness or caring at the top of their priorities for teaching their children, the children themselves weren’t always getting that message. 80% percent of children said they thought their parents valued success or achievement over them being a caring person. In other words, something is lost in the messaging to children. Although we want our children to be kind and caring, much of our daily interactions with our children have to do with achievement and success. We talk to our children about doing their homework and getting good grades or what they are learning to help them plan for a career. Many of us perhaps talk less about caring for the feelings of others, listening to others or issues of justice.
Although there may be some cultural or societal variations to this pattern, many parents struggle with balancing the goals of raising successful and kind kids. These don’t have to be conflicting goals, of course. Kindness (or what researchers call prosocial behavior) is linked to better achievement. Children who show qualities of kindness scored better on various academic measures in a recent study. So if our goal is to put kindness closer to the top of our priority list for our children, then how do we encourage kindness in our everyday lives with our children?
As in most aspects of parenting, modeling behavior is perhaps the most powerful teaching method. Modeling kindness to those around us illustrates in real-time to children how it positively impacts others. Large-scale analyses of research studies have shown the effectiveness of modeling as well. Across all age groups, prosocial modeling (i.e., modeling kindness) was linked to greater helping behaviors of all kinds.
For parents, modeling kindness to children can be as easy as:
- Showing kindness to those who serve in positions like food servers, drivers, or teachers.
- Caring for those in need in your community or neighborhood
- Bringing treats or showing kindness to community workers like police or firefighters
Each day in our interactions with our children and with those in our community, we can model care and thoughtfulness toward others.
Reflect on Kindness
When was the last time you reflected back on a kind act you did in the past? Perhaps it was thinking back to a time you helped a neighbor or donated to a food pantry. This is probably not something many of us do commonly. This kind of “patting ourselves on the back” mentality may seem a little odd. However, when it comes to children, this type of reflecting on their past kind actions may actually encourage more kind behavior. One recent study found that when children were asked to reflect back on a time when they were nice to someone, they were more likely to act kindly afterward.
Given this research, we can think of simple ways to put this idea into practice in our daily lives with our children:
- Help children reflect back on acts of kindness they have done
- Encourage them to see how those kind acts positively impacted others
Play Out Kindness
Children love role-playing. How often do you see your children playing out their favorite scenes from books or movies? We know that role-laying and pretend play also help children learn valuable social-emotional skills. It turns out the same process can help in fostering kindness as well.
Experts at Harvard’s Making Caring Common project recommend playing out scenarios with children to help them think about how to handle situations with kindness. Consider scenarios like these with children:
- If a peer was being teased on the playground, how could you handle it?
- If a new child at school didn’t have anyone to sit with at lunch, how could you help?
- If two classmates are arguing about a toy or book, how could you help the situation?
Talk About Kindness
We often hear the expression of trying to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” This illustration of empathy is, of course, one of the building blocks of kindness in children. When children “put themselves in someone else’s shoes” they are really practicing what researchers call “perspective-taking.” Perspective-taking doesn’t develop in children until around age 4 but once the cognitive capacity is present, parents can help this skill develop by discussing with children how others might be feeling. Studies show that children whose parents discuss other people’s emotions as well as describe their own are more likely to have a better grasp of what others are feeling. Not surprisingly, perspective-taking ability is linked to more altruistic behaviors in children. When an individual has a sense of how another person might be feeling, they are more likely to act on that and provide help or support.
Actionable ways to foster perspective-taking in children:
- Ask children how others might be feeling in different situations. For example, when they see a child crying at the store or sad on the playground.
- When watching movies or reading books, ask children to consider how the characters might be feeling.
One often-overlooked way to foster kindness in children is through our parenting strategies. Often one barrier to kindness is that our children’s big emotions get the better of them in situations. When emotions run high, children may forget about kindness and act in unkind ways out of anger or frustration. Beyond just modeling kindness with others, we can help children develop kindness themselves by helping them learn how to manage their own emotions in healthy ways.
Research backs up this idea. Studies find that children with higher emotional regulation abilities are more likely to show prosocial behavior (i.e., kindness). Therefore, the more we can help children learn strategies for coping with big emotions that don’t involve unkindness, they are more likely to face the situations with a bit more calm.
The easiest way to help children develop better ways to regulate their emotions is through our interactions with them. Psychologists often call this approach “emotion coaching.” It simply means that we:
- Avoid dismissing children’s emotions (including negative ones) but instead try to empathize with them
- Help children find the words to label their emotions (e.g., “You seem upset. Are you angry?”)
- Teach children effective ways of coping with their emotions that don’t involve negative behaviors such as hitting or screaming.
This emotion coaching approach helps children in the heat of the moment and gives them the emotional skills they need for their entire lives. By learning how to manage their emotions better, they can respond to others with kindness instead of reacting from uncontrolled emotions.
We all want our children to be kind. Parenting in such a way to encourage kindness in our children means intentionally making kindness and caring for others a priority in our daily lives. Through simple daily interactions and an eye towards their emotional development, we can raise children who care for others and exhibit that in their lives.
Discover more parenting resources on the BYJU’S FutureSchool blog:
- How the Power of Habits Can Help You and Your Children
- Why Play is the Engine of Learning in the Early Years
Preview blurb: Raise your hand if you want to raise a kind child? We all do, right? There are so many other priorities in our daily lives–homework, career, lessons, etc. Fostering kindness in our children can sometimes be tricky, though. Click through to find some simple ways to help foster kindness in your children (we promise, they are super simple and you might already be doing some of them!).