K IS FOR KINDNESS
We give them piano lessons to nurture their creative side. We sign them up for soccer or basketball to help them develop physically and to learn to be a “team player.” We even hire a tutor if they need a little extra help in math. We do all these things in hopes of raising a well-rounded child … but what about kindness and compassion, or thankfulness and generosity of spirit? Do these come naturally? Most experts say no.
However, if you start early and create teachable moments to share these values, your child will have what he needs to become a kind, compassionate adult.
How to Teach Kids Empathy
According to the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, empathy is defined as, “the ability to imagine how someone else is feeling in a particular situation and respond with care.” It is a complex skill that develops over time. However, a toddler as young as 18–24 months begins to realize he has thoughts and feelings, and that others have their thoughts and feelings, too—some even different from his own. Experts call this, “theory of mind.”
Also, your child can understand words, known as receptive ability, long before she can speak the words, or expressive ability. The first step to developing empathy is being able to recognize and give a name to feelings. Help her identify her emotions and the emotions of those around her.
Share with her your own emotions, too. “You are happy when you eat ice cream.” “Jimmy is sad because his mommy had to go to work.” “Elmo is mad because the Cookie Monster ate his cookie.” When she’s a little older and can talk, take it further and say, “Daddy has a headache. What could we do to make him feel better?” When she brings daddy her favorite toy or blanket, she’s “responding with care.” She was able to identify his feelings and think of a way that would speak to him in a positive manner.
Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist, calls this “playing social detective.” Don’t create lessons about feelings. There are tons of teachable moments every day to help your child develop empathy. Hurley says empathetic children are more likely to “grow into well adjusted adults who have adaptive coping skills.”
Showing Kids How to Be Kind
It’s not enough to say, “you need to be kind to others, or you should be thankful for what you have.” The absolute best way for your child to learn about kindness, gratitude and empathy is to see those in action at home. Don’t allow your children to call each other names. All siblings argue, but insist they do it respectfully. Words do matter. Of course, the same goes for you and your spouse. Mirror good communication skills and identify with each other’s feelings. Parents are the role models and influencers of their children before they even realize it.
Praise your child when he deserves it. He will be more likely to give praise to others, which is a form of kindness. Descriptive praise is more meaningful than generic praise, says Dr. Susan Kuczmarski, author of Becoming a Happy Family: Pathways to the Family Soul (2015). “I really liked the way you passed the ball, and you made a difficult shot in the second quarter” versus “good job tonight.”
Explain that being kind doesn’t have to be a “big deal.” Saying “hi” or asking someone to play can help someone feel better.
Kuczmarski also suggests looking for ways for you and your child to be kind together. She says, “acts of service and kindness free us and our children/preteens from self-imposed, me-focused lives by widening our circles of compassion.” Perhaps a sick friend could use a home cooked meal, or an elderly neighbor needs a ride to the post office. Take your child with you as you provide assistance. Talk about why it’s good to help people. Ask school-age children about classmates. Is there anyone who needs a kind act? How about the new kid or the one who “doesn’t seem to have a lot of friends.” Explain that being kind doesn’t have to be a “big deal.” Saying “hi” or asking someone to play can help someone feel better.
How to Teach Kids Gratitude
Like other values, children can start to understand the concept of appreciation before they display it outwardly. At about 18 months, begin prompting your child to say “please” and “thank you.” Read books about what it means to be thankful. Show appreciation to your child. This one is easy to forget, but it has a big impact on him when you say, “Thank you for putting your toys away without arguing,” or “thank you for that big hug!”
A gratitude tree is a great visual reminder, says Clinical Psychologist Dr. Francine Lederer. Make a tree out of cardboard or construction paper; tape it to the wall. Cut out leaf shapes. Each member of the family can write something for which they are thankful. Toddlers can draw or have someone write for them, and new leaves can be added weekly or monthly.
Lederer also suggests talking to children (toddlers and up) about ways to help people who don’t have as much as they do. The National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families website suggests helping at a local animal shelter, food pantry or program that collects warm clothing during the winter. Be sure to make the connection for your child between what you are doing and how it is helping the recipients. “The coats we collect will help kids just like you stay warm this winter.” Explain the importance of being grateful for what we have.
Children are bombarded with “must have” messages about the newest toy or the latest gadget. It’s tempting to get these for your child, but it is hard for her to be grateful if she gets everything she wants all the time. Consider regularly rotating toys. Put some away for a while and retrieve them later. Start a tradition where your child donates one of her gently used toys when she receives a new toy. Give older children an opportunity to earn expensive toys or video games. They may not like the idea but the item will mean much more if they have a hand in getting it, and they will, more times than not, take better care of it.
Experts suggest not showering your child with gifts during the holidays. Very young children are overwhelmed by lots of gifts and often start playing with the boxes before all the gifts are even opened. Ask family members not to go overboard with their gift giving. Perhaps have them give a gift of money towards a bigger item that your child is trying to earn.
The values you want your children to have may not come naturally, However, it’s worth taking the time to talk about them and, most importantly, model them, not just occasionally, but from the time they are infants until they leave your home.
Books To Teach Kids About Kindness
ABC’s of Kindness by Samantha Berger and Kindness Counts 1, 2, 3 by R.A. Strong.
Both of these books by the popular Highlights magazine address ways kids can be kind to themselves and everyone around them.
Do Unto Otters by Laurie Keller
In this story about new neighbors, one thing is certain: it’s best to treat otters the way you want them to treat you. Following the Golden Rule has never been so cute, smart and playful.
Just Feel: How to be Stronger, Happier, Healthier, and More by Mallika Chopra
Just Feel is an easy-to-read guide that introduces kids ages 8–12 to ways to problem solve, harness inner strength and gain emotional awareness.
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena
In this #1 New York Times bestseller, CJ wonders why they don’t have what others have. His grandmother’s encouraging answers help him see the beauty and fun in their routine.
The Monster Who Lost His Mean by Tiffany Strelitz Haber
This is the hilarious story of a monster who can’t be mean anymore. With the help of friends, he discovers it’s who you are that really matters.
is a teacher whose writing has appeared in many magazines and newspapers. When she isn’t teaching or writing, she enjoys the company of her two children and her golden retriever, Dusty.
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