How to Teach Kindness to your Child
Updated: Nov 5, 2021
More and more in my private practice, I hear from parents about how “kids these days just aren’t kind anymore.” Parents are confused and often blame Youtube, TikTok, or Snapchat for the lack of kindness that seems so prominent in today's youngest generation. Many parents walk into parenthood assuming certain traits and concepts are intuitive, one of these being kindness. Partly it is. Some people seem more kind than others due to their temperament. Temperament is something people are born with. For some, it comes easy and natural to think of others, hold empathy, and make kind choices. For others, it can be more of a challenge. This is where parenting comes in.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not that your simply kiddo isn’t kind. If he is anything like my kiddo, he is kind-natured and a genuinely good person. In my case, my kiddo is sensitive, caring, empathetic, and passionate. However, he is also stubborn, likes to be in control, becomes anxious when he’s not in control, and that anxiety can lead to unkind choices.
Let me explain why:
Melinda Moyer, the author of How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes, explains that the brain reacts to anxiety the same way whether a person’s life is being threatened or if they are taking a stressful test. Stress throws the body into the fight, flee, or freeze response. During this response, the brain prepares the body to either fight, flee, or freeze by sending blood and oxygen from the brain to the body. You don’t need to think as hard when you are trying to fight or run away, so you don’t send as much blood and oxygen to your brain. Now your kiddo has two obstacles working against him. The brain doesn’t have enough oxygen for your kiddo to think logically and your child is also feeling unsafe, even though you simply told him he couldn’t watch any more TV (remember the brain can’t tell the difference between life-threatening events and silly, annoying things).
So, it’s not that your kiddo is intentionally being mean or choosing to be unkind. It’s that your kiddo is trying to protect himself. There are a few things you can do as a parent to help your child through this type of emotional dysregulation. The first is going to be to respond reflectively. This is simple. You state the emotions you see. For example, you might say, “You are feeling mad.” For more on reflective responding, see this blog here. This helps your kiddo recognize what they are feeling when they are feeling it so then they can cope with it. Once they have calmed down, that is the opportunity to turn this into a teaching moment. Ask your kiddo questions like, “What would have been something you could do instead of what you did?” or “What is a good way to help yourself calm down when you start feeling anxious?”
You might be saying, “This is great, but what about everyday lessons I can use to teach kindness?” Well, I am glad you asked! Here are some tips to integrate kindness lessons every day.
Create opportunities for your kids to help
I know, I know! Your child helping you isn’t always help. When they ask to help clean or want to help cook dinner, it's usually a lot more work for the parent. And as parents we are tired! Sometimes we don’t want the “help” because it would be so much faster and easier to do it by ourselves. BUT Moyer explains that the more opportunities kids have to help, the better they get at it and the more they want to help. What’s more is the more kids help with tasks that benefit other people, like doing the dishes or setting the table, the more compassionate they become. As kids get into adolescents, the more they engage in community service that positively influences another person’s emotional and physical well-being and they see that benefit first hand, the more compassionate and empathetic a person is.
Teach manners and expectations explicitly
Remember how earlier I said that parents often expect things like kindness to be intuitive? And remember how I said that is not always the case? Well, here’s a tip to help remedy that. Tell your kids exactly how you expect them to behave. You can even roleplay this. For example, if you want your kids to act kindly and respectfully when meeting a new person, you must teach them what those skills are and how to use them. Roleplay meeting a new friend or adult. Teach them to look a person in the eyes, smile, how to say their name, and how to shake hands.
Be Kind Yourself
I know this sounds obvious, unhelpful, and easy, however, it’s not. It is not easy to be kind all the time. It’s not easy to treat everyone with respect all the time. However, kids learn best through modeling. So, if you expect your kids to respond kindly, even in frustrating situations, you need to model emotional regulation and kind choices when you are frustrated too. Modeling especially works for kindness because kindness is contagious. When you are kind to people, especially our children, they respond kindly in return.
This reminds me of a time I was trying to get my kiddo to get in the car. I was started to get frustrated with him because we were running late and we really needed to get in the car, like, now! I ended up half shouting at him, “GET IN THE CAR!” At that point, he started to escalate emotionally as well. He started to back away and his facial expression showed anger. At that moment, I realized I could either continue down this path and likely end with me forcing him into the car, seat-kicking and screaming, or I could take a breath and try again. I chose the second option (this time-I’m not perfect). I took an audible breath (to model calming myself down) and said, “I’m sorry, let me try that again. I really need you to get in the car because we are running late, and daddy needs us home to help with the baby.” After a beat, my sweet four-year-old took a breath as well and said, “Okay, mommy,” and got in the car.
Link expectations with reason
Sometimes our kids just don’t understand why we have to do certain things (cue the four-year-old saying “why” every five minutes). If we can take a couple of extra minutes and link our expectation to reason it goes a long way. Instead of “Pick up your toys!” say “It’s time to pick up your toys. We are getting ready for bed, and I don’t want you or me to trip on them. That would hurt.”
If you are struggling to build empathy and kindness in your kiddo, I would love to help! Call WellNest Counseling to discuss the best next steps for your family. You might just need a one-time parent consultation or we can talk about more intensive options like therapy for your kiddo or parent training classes!