Which of these three attributes do you desire the most ... to raise your children to be a) kind, b) smart, or c) successful?
Research shows that more than 90 percent of American parents say that one of their top priorities is to raise kind children. But, what does this mean … to be kind?
Angela C. Santomero, co-creator of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, says that “kindness is about seeing with your heart.” Others define it as helping others, showing patience, and communicating respectfully.
Imagine this scenario. Your two-year-old son is playing contently with a toy truck, and then you see your five-year-old daughter tug at the toy in an attempt to take it away, saying “I want to play with it!"
Before you can say a word, your daughter has snatched the toy out of your son’s hands and your son has hit your daughter in a fit of rage.
As parents, with a nearly universal common goal of raising kind children, it can be challenging to understand and manage the big emotions and aggression we see. We can easily become triggered and, in our upset, fall into one of these four common pitfalls when addressing the situation:
- Telling our children what not to do. Examples: “Don’t take away the toy.” or “Don’t hit.”
- Insisting they share or shaming. Examples: “You need to share the truck.” or “Why would you be so greedy/not share?”
- Demanding a forced apology as opposed to a slower to come but much more powerful genuine one. Examples: “Say you are sorry, right now!” or “You need to apologize!”
- Saying generalized phrases that are hard for young children to understand and/or unclear directives that make it challenging for children to take clear action. Examples: “Be nice.” or “Why can’t you two just get along?!”
Research shows that when we shame, blame, and guilt children into kindness, or, quite the opposite, when we dangle carrots (aka external rewards) for caring, children begin to view kindness as a chore rather than a choice.
With our words and actions, we can teach children the art of kindness. With our positive attention, we can show children that their compassion, whether it is for themselves or others, is both noticed and valued.
Kindness is teachable
From a very young age, kids are wired to be kind. Even the youngest of children show an innate understanding of others’ needs. By the time they are one to two-years-old, many are eager to help those around them.
“Empathy is hardwired in us from birth through what’s known as the mirror-neuron system, and we intuitively feel what others feel,” says Kelli Harding, M.D., author of The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier and Healthier With The Groundbreaking Science of Kindness. “This is why your two-year-old may burst into tears when she sees another toddler fall at the playground,” she continues.
Harding explains that empathy is understanding and compassion is acting on that understanding. “As a child’s brain develops, he can better separate you from I, and that’s when compassion forms,” says Dr. Harding.
As parents, we can nurture this inclination in our children. “It’s kind of like weight training,” says Dr. Ritchie Davidson from the University of Wisconsin. “We found that people can build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.”
When children are given the choice to share, apologize, or offer kind gestures instead of being forced to, they are roughly twice as likely to be generous later. And when kids are praised and recognized for their kindness, they are more likely to help again.
When your child is playing with a toy that another wants, avoid demanding the share. Make it a choice, “are you willing to share your truck?” If the child says yes, then (woot!), it was on their own accord and that rocks. If the child does not feel like sharing at that moment, acknowledge respectfully, and help the child waiting for the toy by empathizing with them and help them come up with solutions until the toy becomes available.
Pushing a child to apologize is different than prompting them to apologize. The first punishes through shame and blame, while the latter teaches the skills of kindness and thoughtfulness. Research shows that when children are intrinsically motivated to apologize, not only are they more likely to mean it, but they are less likely to repeat the offensive behavior. Additionally, studies show that most young children do not view coerced apologies as effective. Findings of one indicate that 90 percent of children who willingly apologized viewed the recipient as feeling better while only 22 percent of children connected a coerced apology to improved feelings in another.
The goal, then, is to teach skills to be kind, rather than punish. Refrain from pushing a child to apologize when he or she is not ready, or when they are not remorseful. Instead, prompt children to apologize. This is done by helping children notice and name how they were feeling when they acted out and help them understand the impact of their words and actions. Discuss what they could have done differently or what they might do next time if this were to happen again. It might feel challenging in the short-term to resist forcing an apology, but in the long-term, you will be building lifelong skills rooted in empathy, embracing mistakes, and repairing relationships.
Saying “be kind/nice/helpful”
Because children are concrete learners, they feel confused by general statements. Instead, get clear and state the behaviors you do want to see. When you notice your kiddo doing these behaviors, help them celebrate these moments with a high five, dance party, or with an observation such as, “Wow, I really see you helping your brother. He seems to like when you show him that.” This will help reinforce more of the desired behavior.
So what do we do if we aren’t telling our kids to apologize after hitting their sibling, or telling them to share their toys with others, or inviting them to “be kind”?
Tips to help teach kindness to children
1. Stop and manage the situation as needed. If a child is going to hurt themself or another, intervene for safety.
2. Offer a Time-In. Notice your child’s need for help and make it safe for them to feel. Time-ins help children notice their big feelings and offer strategies to help regulate their emotions. This shift from the primitive brainstem (fight, flight, or freeze) to the higher-level learning brain makes it possible for children to become more self-aware. Once they are self-aware, they can then begin to notice how their actions affect others. During a time-in:
- Invite your child to recognize what happened.
- Help them notice how they feel about what happened.
- Ask questions to help them understand how the other person involved may feel about what happened.
- How do you think the other person is feeling?
- Why might they feel that way?
- Explore what they are willing to do about what happened.
- Would you like to do a make-up/re-do?
- What could we do to help them feel better?
3. Make mistakes safe. Mistakes help us learn and grow. When children feel as though mistakes are allowed, and even celebrated, they embrace imperfection in themselves and others.
4. Define kindness. Ask your children what kindness means to them and create a family definition. Together, brainstorm acts that support this definition. Hang a kindness value card on the refrigerator as a visual reinforcer for these acts and create a ritual to discuss kindness with your children. “What did you do that was helpful/kind/thoughtful (and so forth) today?”
5. Model and reinforce the behaviors you want to see. Offer opportunities to practice kindness and compassion. This can be done by creating a family ritual like volunteering, or via small acts of kindness sprinkled throughout the day, like bringing someone in your family who is thirsty a cold glass of water. Strengthen your child’s observation muscles by practicing these skills yourself and calling them out in one another as a family. Some families look for opportunities to “catch someone being kind,” writing them down on slips of paper and putting them in a kindness jar to be read together each week.
6. Read books about kindness. Another great way to reinforce this behavior is by reading books that teach kindness. As you read, ask questions to help children think about and relate to the characters in the book. Some talking points for prompting children to consider kindness are, "What do you think they were thinking?”, “How do you think they were feeling when they said or did that?” and “What would you have done in that situation?”
When we model kindness for ourselves, others, and yes, for the planet, we nurture it in our children. Kindness in action. This is where real and lasting power for systemic change will come from.
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