Raising a Child Who is Kind
Can you teach your child to be more sensitive to the feelings and emotions of others? Can kindness be learned?
The dictionary definition of empathy is to understand and share the feelings of another. It is the capacity to show concern for those who are vulnerable or in distress, to have the perspective of ‘walking in another’s shoes’.
Developing a sense of empathy is something that can grow and deepen over one’s lifetime, and parents can provide many opportunities to help their child practice and learn. Sustained healthy and supportive relationships with family and friends from birth can spread into feelings of empathy and compassion for the greater community and the world as the child grows into adulthood.
First, children must feel secure in their attachment to their own parents and caregivers. You, the parents, are the first ‘emotional coaches’. Young children are so connected to you, it is as if they possess ‘antennae’ that are on constant alert to all of your feelings, whether you express them verbally or not. Facial expressions and tone of voice tell as much as words what a parent is feeling. (How perceptive are you at recognizing facial expressions of emotions in others? Try this quiz here: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/quizzes/take_quiz/ei_quiz )
If you want to help your child learn to be kind it is vital that you model the behavior. Your words and actions matter. For example, it’s important to avoid gossip and putting-down others who aren’t in the room, that you ‘walk your talk.’
Here are some suggestions for helping children with their feelings and emotions:
Birth to age 7
- Make sure there is time each day for face-to-face time, time where you and your child can interact. Put electronic devices away for part of the evening. Look at your child when you answer their questions. Learn a few finger plays and clapping games to do with toddlers – children delight and learn from those face—to-face interactions.
- Label feelings and acknowledge the child’s feelings. “It seems like you are feeling kind of angry today, is that right?”
- Model, rather than tell them, to ‘say thank you’, etc. Show by your actions that having manners and showing gratitude is part of every day life. It is a living practice of the Golden Rule.
- Read books together and discuss the characters’ feelings. For example, when reading a picture book together, ask your child, “how do you think the child (in the story) is feeling?” Your local children’s librarian is a great resource for suggestions. Try Pinterest, too.
- Engage in conversations about the cause and effect of emotions and behaviors. “When Mary spoke to me like that I felt sad.” “You must have felt angry when things didn’t go your way today.”
- Help children develop self- control and to manage their feelings of anger, shame and envy which can get in the way of empathy and may contribute to bullying behavior or anxiety. There are mindfulness programs for children you can learn more about online. Some schools are adopting mindfulness programs as a way to increase calm in the classroom and to help children recognize and manage their own feelings.
- Help children speak for those who don’t have their own voice, such as their pet or a younger sibling.
Age 7 and up
- Teach basic politeness and manners which simply ask us to practice the golden rule: treat others as we would like to be treated– in our everyday interactions with others.
- Avoid using your anger to punish. Provide opportunities for a do-over and to make amends.
- Give jobs and regular chores – simple household activities help your child to see themselves as a valuable member of your family/community and that their contribution matters.
- Respect the child’s individual personality. Your child’s temperament may be quite different from yours. Discover what methods and techniques work for supporting your particular child.
- Take genuine interest in your child’s daily life, feelings, and their friendships. Avoid peppering your with questions about their day as soon as they come home from school, but provide opportunities where your child can bring things up. Sometimes taking a walk or tossing a ball around after dinner creates the possibility for a conversation and allows your child to share with you what they feel was important about their day.
- Relate kindness to personal happiness.
- Hold family meetings where everyone participates when challenges arise, or even when deciding where to go on a family vacation. Allow all voices to be heard.
- Read and learn about biographies of ‘heroes’ – people who were/are models of upstanding behavior, who made personal sacrifices to help others or who fought for social justice.
- Help children discover what they have in common with others; meet people from different age groups and cultural or economic backgrounds and who hold other points of view.
- Help your teen to be able to ‘toggle’ between their own feelings and the perspectives of others. “You felt sad, but I wonder how Serena felt?”
- Improvisation and role playing games and activities have been shown to help teens deepen their awareness of other’s feelings as well as gain perspective on their own feelings.
- Help your child self-identify as being a helpful person instead of praising them for helping others. The difference may seem subtle at first. Encourage the idea of ‘doing with’ rather than ‘doing for’.
- Be mindful of teens’ use of social media and the messages they are exposed to.
- Engage teens in social justice and charitable activities
~Lorraine, Director of Lifespan Religious Education