In a world filled with conflict and strife, some days it seems that kindness is in short supply. As parents, most of us hope to change this atmosphere a bit by raising children who exemplify kindness and compassion. How do we move toward this goal in our daily lives with our children? Let’s consider some ways in which we can parent with an eye towards raising children who bring more kindness to the world.
Why is Kindness Important?
From our earliest days of parenting, most of us quickly recognize the need to foster kindness in our children. As our toddlers first begin interacting with other children on the playground, we reinforce the lessons of kindness we want to pass on by suggesting they share their toys or act nicely towards others. Beyond these simple examples, across the globe most cultures recognize the value of kindness as a virtue. Kindness represents an empathic and considerate approach to others (and ourselves). This virtue has the potential to enhance our lives and those of others.1
From a child development perspective, kindness has been linked to greater well-being among children and adolescents. Children who exhibit more kindness (i.e., prosocial behavior) tend to be more socially accepted and have better overall academic experience.2 Furthermore, kindness helps make us (and our children) happier. We’ve all had that experience of feeling uplifted by helping another person, and this encourages us to help more.2 The rush of endorphins we get when we are kind and helpful to others is a real phenomenon that children can experience too.
Fostering Kindness Through Parenting
The benefits of kindness for children and the wider society are clear. How to go about raising children who exemplify kindness is sometimes less straightforward. We cannot force children to be kind, yet we want to encourage a heartfelt attitude of kindness in any way we can. These ideas provide some meaningful ways to begin fostering kindness:
Model It: Kindness is a virtue we can model well through our daily interactions with our children. When children experience kindness, they recognize the value of it. When we use kind words with our children, empathize with their feelings, and show compassion, they see how this makes them feel. In turn, they will be more likely to show kindness and empathy in their interactions with friends and siblings. While we all make mistakes as parents and lose our patience occasionally, if we strive to model kindness the majority of the time, our children will inherently learn this mindset.
Discuss Feelings: Allowing children to feel and discuss all their emotions can often be the first step in fostering kindness. Simply put, in order for children to understand the feelings of others and attend to them, they first have to understand their own emotions. In daily life, this might mean helping children understand and label their emotions (e.g., happy, sad, frustrated, etc.). Children can often become overwhelmed by big emotions, but if we can allow them the space to express them (even the difficult ones), they will eventually learn more about how to regulate them better. This aspect of emotional development ultimately fosters kindness as children become able to understand others’ emotions as well.3 By understanding other people’s feelings, they can begin to empathize with them.
Ask Questions: Children ask us dozens (if not hundreds) of questions each day. The questions we ask them, however, may be the ones that have the most significant impact on the development of kindness. Asking children questions about how they think other people might be feeling can be a great way to foster kindness and empathy. For example, if you see a child crying on the playground, you could ask your child, “why do you think they are crying?”
Although we can never know with certainty how another person is feeling, discussing these issues with children helps them understand the emotions of others. This is all part of the development of perspective-talking—the ability to understand another person’s perspective. This skill takes time to develop in children. Children generally do not have the cognitive maturity to mentally “walk in someone else’s shoes” until around the age of 4.4 However, asking questions about others’ feelings can start them well on the developmental path towards perspective-taking and ultimately, empathy.
Discipline Mindfully: Perhaps less obvious is the connection between how we discipline our children and its role in fostering kindness. Of course, we want to be kind to our kids, even when disciplining them. Beyond that, however, we can use discipline strategies that reinforce the emotional lessons we want our children to learn. For example, when disciplining a child for hitting their sibling, we can go beyond the simple statement, “Don’t hit your sister” to “Hitting other people shows unkindness and can injure them. That’s why we don’t allow hitting.” By explaining the reasoning behind the rule, we can help our children grasp more fully how their actions impact others.3 By continually helping children make the connection between their actions and their impact on others’ feelings, we can use these interactions as a way to foster kindness and empathy.
Kindness as a Way of Life
Raising kind children is a top priority for many of us. However, in a world filled with conflict and divisiveness, it is no easy task. Although we can’t always control the world that our children grow up in, we can foster kindness and empathy through our parenting strategies. By being mindful of our words, asking questions, and being open to children’s emotions, we can raise a generation of children for whom kindness is a way of life.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
- Malti, T. (2020). Kindness: A perspective from developmental psychology. Retrieved June 30, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1080/17405629.2020.1837617
- Atkins, D. V. & Salzhauer, A. (2018) How to be a Kindness Role Model for Your Kids. Greater Good, University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved June 30, 2022, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_be_a_kindness_role_model_for_your_kids.
- Kris, D. F. (2022). Why Kindness and Emotional Literacy Matter in Raising Kids – Mindshift. KQED. Retrieved June 30, 2022, from https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/58790/why-kindness-and-emotional-literacy-matters-in-raising-kids
- Li, P., Jin, X., Liao, Y., Li, Y., Shen, M., & He, J. (2019). Cooperation Turns Preschoolers into Flexible Perspective Takers. Cognitive Development, 52, 100823.