How to teach your kids to be kind
Ask just about any parent what they want for their kids and they’ll invariably mention something about kindness. Which makes sense, because none of us sets out to raise unkind kids, right? We’re not aiming for our kids to grow up and become jerks (at least I hope not!). But can you teach your kids to be kind? And do you actually need to teach kindness?
Well, the good news is that kids are naturally pretty compassionate. After all, the human brain is more or less hard wired for connection and empathy. From a very young age, we are all naturally drawn to helpful people and want to be helpful ourselves. Have you ever seen the way a toddler comforts others when they are upset or hurt? It’s pretty cute, right? And it comes pretty easily to them too.
The bad news though, is that if our empathy skills are not nurtured and encouraged as we grow, well…we kinda lose them. As children get older, they start to become influenced more by external factors. Despite our best intentions, kids tend to become more focused on achievement and results than on being kind.
But if kindness and empathy are modelled and their value reinforced in everyday life, we can turn it all around. We can teach kids to be kind. So how exactly do you teach your kids to be kind?
1. Model Kindness
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: kids are always watching us and they learn from our example. One of the best things you can do to teach your kids to be kind, is to be kind yourself.
Treat your children with kindness and respect
Be mindful of the way you interact with your children. Avoid harsh or critical language. Be conscious of sarcasm that children (particularly younger children) do not understand. Be aware of the way your children interpret your words, behaviour, and tone. You may think you’re engaging in playful teasing or a light hearted joke, but your child may not interpret it this way. And if you do react harshly, remember that we all make mistakes! We’re human. Simply own your mistake, apologise to your child and make an effort to repair the relationship promptly. This is an important lesson in forgiveness for your child!
Be kind to your spouse
Now of course, this doesn’t mean you can never argue with your spouse or that you have to get along at all times! But when you do find yourself in conflict with your significant other, try to set an example of kindness and respect through your language and behaviour. Avoid name calling or other abusive language and demonstrate to your kids how to make amends after a disagreement.
Avoid negative or disrespectful talk about others
Try to avoid speaking negatively about others. Teach your children why saying negative things about others is unkind and disrespectful. Help them to understand how it might make others feel.
Be kind to yourself
Teach your children to be kind and compassionate by having compassion for yourself. Don’t speak negatively about yourself in front of your children. Show them what self care looks like. Show them how to set boundaries with respect and kindness. Show them what self-forgiveness looks like.
2. Teach empathy
If you want to teach your kids to be kind, you’ll need to help them develop empathy. Empathy is an important component of emotional intelligence, and something that takes a while to fully develop in children. Of course, if we want our children to build empathy, we need to treat them with empathy. But we also need to explicitly teach them about empathy and nurture this skill as they grow. We do this primarily by talking about feelings. A lot.
Help them understand their emotions
Give your children the tools and language they need to identify and express their emotions, and make it safe for them to do so. Make it clear to your child that their feelings are valid and important. If they are distressed, try to avoid comments like, “You’ll be ok”, or “It’s not such a big deal.” Instead, support your child by validating their feelings, and letting them know you understand what they’re going through. “It looks like you’re feeling sad because you lost your teddy. I feel sad when I lose things that I love too.”
Help them understand other people’s emotions
We also help children build empathy by talking about other people’s feelings. Identify feelings in others when you see them. Try asking your children questions to help them see things from other people’s point of view: “How do you think he feels about that?” And help them understand non verbal cues, like facial expression, tone of voice and body language. “Your friend is crying, how do you think she feels?”
Help them understand the impact of their behaviour on other people’s emotions
Point out how to your child how their own actions might make others feel. But be cautious here – we don’t want to shame children for their behaviour or send a message to children that they are responsible for managing the feelings of others. But our actions do affect others, and we can help children understand this by simply stating what we see, “You hit your sister and now she is crying. How do you think she feels?” You can then encourage your child to make amends through their words and actions, “Is there anything we can do to help your sister feel better?”
3. Make kindness a family value
Teach your kids to be kind by weaving kindness into your everyday interactions as a family. Help them understand what kindness looks, sounds, and feels like in your family. This way, you can create a culture of kindness within your family and make it clear to your children that kindness is something you value and prioritise as a family.
Talk about what kindness means
Help your child understand what kindness is by talking about what it looks like. Have your children join you in a brainstorming session and come up with a list of ways they can show kindness to others. Or have them help you write a definition of kindness, and put it up in your house somewhere for everyone to see.
Identify kindness when you see it
Look for opportunities to point out kindness to your children. If you see your children being kind – acknowledge it: “Thanks for helping your sister with her homework, that was very kind”. If you see others being kind, point that out to your child too: “It was so kind of that lady to hold the door for us.”
Use your language to convey an expectation of kindness
Help your children understand that kindness is valued and expected by helping them view situations through a “lens of kindness”. Weaving kindness into your every day conversations helps your children understand that they should use the value of kindness to guide their behaviour and decision making.
- “Thank you for being so kind”
- “Would you be kind enough to help me with this?”
- “That was such a kind thing to do”
- “Please use kinder words”
Set and hold limits around kind behaviour
Don’t allow your children to be unkind to each other. Put an end to unkind or hurtful behaviour like aggression, exclusion or name calling immediately. Encourage children to make amends if they treat siblings unkindly, and teach them HOW to do this.
Don’t allow your children to be unkind or disrespectful to you. Talk to them about expectations and set rules around behaviour and language. These will look different in every family, but ensure they are clear to your child. If your child is old enough, involve them in this process so they have some sense of ownership over the rules.
Promote inclusion and celebrate differences
Make kindness the norm by choosing books and media for your children that convey inclusion with their words, images, and messages. Use these as tools for starting conversations with your kids about kindness and the importance of embracing and celebrating our unique differences.
4. Give kids opportunities to practice kindness
Children learn by doing. If you want to teach your kids to be kind, you need to set them up for success by giving them lots of opportunities to flex those kindness muscles! Help them to understand how helping others feels. The more they practice being kind to others, and experience the joy of helpfulness and of giving, the more naturally it will come to them. And, the more likely they will be to seek out opportunities to do it again and again.
Give kids responsibilities at home
Giving children real, meaningful responsibilities and opportunities to contribute to the household helps them understand what it feels like to help others. Thanking your child for their efforts helps them understand the impact and importance of their contribution.
Encourage acts of kindness towards others
That list you made of kind acts we can do for others? Help your kids get it done! Find opportunities to help others as a family and encourage your children to engage in age appropriate acts of kindness. Perhaps they can make a get well card for their sick friend, bring in the neighbours bin, or hold the door open for someone at the shops.
Talk to them about how these acts make them feel, and how they make others feel. Impress upon them the importance of doing kind things for others regardless of whether we receive anything in return. We do kind acts simply because they help others feel good, not because we want to receive praise, thanks or accolades!
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.