We focus so much on our children’s health, their happiness, their development and growth, and their achievements. These are all important areas of their lives to focus on as they grow from little kids to big kids and eventually, to adults. But many parents overlook a crucial part of the child’s growth as a person: the development of empathy, kindness, and generosity. The good news is that just a few simple changes in the way you talk to your family, choose what they read and watch, and what information and experiences you present to them can go a long way.
1. Model the behavior you wish to see. Your child learns much of his behavior at home. The next time she is feeling sad, frustrated, or angry, take a moment to talk with her. Ask her why she feels upset. Tell her that you understand, and that you are sorry that she feels that way. Talk with her about ways in which you can help her. Demonstrating empathy will teach her to approach others in a similar way. If you have multiple kids, encourage them to be empathetic toward one another. If you notice that one child is having a bad day, ask your other child what she might do to make him feel better, and encourage her to take the lead in consoling her sibling. This type of behavior will eventually extend to your children’s treatment of friends at daycare or preschool. Remember that you and your partner must demonstrate this type of caring and warmth for one another in front of your children. Need to vent some anger or hash out adult issues? Do so behind closed doors, as children are too young to understand the nuanced differences between healthy expressions of anger and unhealthy expressions of aggression.
2. Manners, manners, manners. Manners are about more than just proper etiquette. Learning to greet people with warmth, make them feel welcome, and express gratitude, are all characteristics of a caring child who thinks about the feelings of others. As early as infancy you can encourage your child to wave hello when greeting family and friends. Once your child can speak, teach him to say hello, goodbye, please, and thank you. When he learns to ask for something politely, it will teach him th
at the other person in the conversation is doing him a kindness, and when he thanks that person it will show that he understands that kindness. Older kids may even be encouraged to ask guests if they would like a glass of water or if they want a bite to eat. This type of consideration is a building block for warmth and thoughtfulness.
3. What are they reading and watching? Books offer ample opportunities to introduce your children to scenarios in which characters act out of kindness, show empathy, and resolve conflict peacefully. Check out this list for a few of our favorites. Stay on top of the television shows your children are watching. The National Institute of Mental Health has released research showing that the type of behavior children see on television influences their behavior. Make sure that they are absorbing healthy lessons from the TV they watch, and that the TV and movies they see do not glorify violence and aggression.
4. Who are their role models? Depending on their age, your kids may know that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man who fought for the rights of black people in the U.S. Do they know that he embraced peaceful, non-violent opposition to racism? Teaching them about leaders like Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi can show them that conflicts may be resolved without hurting the other party. The Albert Einstein Institution’s website provides resources that will help you to talk about these issues. Think about other historical figures who were committed to helping others, such as Mother Teresa, and her work helping people living in poverty. In very young children, learning about these historical figures may not be compelling. If this is the case, talk to them about celebrity role models they admire. Does your child love Frozen? Tell him that Kristin Bell, the voice of Elsa, is involved in a variety of causes, including animal rights, humanitarian efforts in Uganda, and has even done important work with the Red Cross. Ask your kids who they admire, use Google to learn more about that person’s philanthropic and volunteer work, and talk up the importance of caring about others and spending one’s time dedicated to others.
5. Get involved in your community. Very young children can be introduced to volunteer opportunities by simply asking them to pick out a coat at the store for this winter’s coat drive. Ask your kids to choose a few cans of food from the grocery store for the food drive. Talk to them about where their contribution is going, and how it will help others.
Are you committed to raising thoughtful, empathetic children? Have your kids surprised you with how caring and kind they have the capacity to be? Tell us about your kind, generous kids in the comments, and give us your own tips for raising mindful, caring children!