Adapted by Kim Leon, Ph.D., former State Specialist, Human Development and Family Studies, University of Missouri Extension
Encouraging kindness is an important responsibility for all adults who care for children. Here are some ways you can help children show kindness toward others and experience the positive feelings that grow out of kind and caring behavior.
- Set a good example. Children learn constantly from adults’ words and actions.
- Involve children in acts of kindness. Even with a busy schedule, you and your children can take a minute to help an elderly neighbor or give canned goods to a food bank in order to demonstrate concern for others.
- Explain to children why you want them to engage in kind behavior. Children are more likely to comply with adults’ wishes when they hear a reasonable and understandable explanation. For example, “Aunt Jean has been visiting with Grandma all week at the hospital so she is really tired. Would you please play quietly so that she can rest and relax?”
- To be an effective adult role model, you must match your words with your actions. For example, if you compliment someone’s new clothes but make fun of the way the clothes look when the person is gone, children receive a powerful message. They learn that saying one thing and doing another is acceptable.
- Expressing appreciation for kind and thoughtful behavior is another way to set a good example for children. By reinforcing children’s kind behavior, you are helping them to understand that their kindness makes a positive difference. For example, “Corrina, I’m really glad that you shared the blocks with Andy. See how much he likes playing with them!”
- Children need to know that the adults in their lives care about them and others. Children who experience respect and appreciation from adults are more likely to demonstrate caring toward others.
Creating foundations in the early years (birth to age 5):
- Trust: The quality of care you give to infants can greatly influence their later development. If babies learn that the adults around them are kind and dependable, they will learn to trust the world and themselves. When you respond sensitively to babies’ needs, they feel valued and important, which builds the foundation of kindness toward others.
- Consistency: If you express consistent expectations, children develop predictable views of the world. Be consistent and clear with directions and explanations so children will feel safe in exploring the world and trying new things. If your requests and reasons are inconsistent, children become confused and unsure about what is expected.
- Positive guidance: Young children learn best when they are not frightened or angry. By using guidance based on love and respect, you can help young children become aware of the consequences of their behavior for others. Research says that harsh physical punishment can weaken children’s trust in adults. Physical punishment does not help children learn self-control. When adults use physical discipline, children feel angry at adults and ashamed of themselves. When young children experience consistent and positive guidance, they are more likely to act kindly toward others.
Building bridges between children and others (ages 6 to 12):
- Encourage children to think about others: Many school-age children are able to see the world through another’s eyes. By encouraging this ability, you are helping children to reason and think about interpersonal matters. If a school-age child engages in unkind behavior with another child, explain to her or him why the behavior is unacceptable and how this behavior makes the other child feel.
- Create opportunities and express appreciation: During the school years, you can give children more responsibility for being helpful and kind to others. By creating such opportunities for children, you also can tell them how much you appreciate their helpful behavior and how this behavior affects others. This enables children to experience the good feelings that result from being kind to others and may result in them initiating acts of kindness on their own.
- Practice empathy: Empathy is defined as “the ability to identify oneself mentally with a person or thing and so understand his/her feelings or meaning.” Empathy also involves connecting with the feelings and needs of things other than people, such as animals and the environment. You can practice empathic behavior and encourage school-age children to do the same. You can show them how empathy can help solve everyday problems.
Adapted from MU Extension publication GH6126 Raising Kind Children