Here’s the good news: Kids are pretty compassionate by nature. Research out of the Yale Baby Lab shows that children less than 2 years old, show greater satisfaction when giving treats to others than when receiving treats for themselves. If children are hardwired for kindness, then parents who want to raise nice kids are off to a good start. But still, parents who care about raising kids who support others, enjoy giving, and choose kindness have to model that behavior themselves and give explicit lessons on why being kind is a choice. To find some actionable steps to move beyond the standard “Tell them to be nice!” we spoke to Dale Atkins, co-author of The Kindness Advantage: Cultivating Compassionate and Connected Children. Here, Atkins provides eight ways parents can model kindness and teach their kids about compassion.
They Don’t Teach Kindness. They Encourage Compassionate Qualities.
According to Dale, raising compassionate kids isn’t about explicitly teaching kindness. Rather, it’s about encouraging a child’s kind qualities and doing so in an interesting and curiosity-building way. “Kind kids are interested in other people, they’re accepting, they’re not so judgmental,” says Dale. “They’re willing to listen, they’re empathetic.” If a child is particularly polite to a server or someone at the grocery store, parents should compliment that. But they should also be kind to their kids as they parent them, too. “When we think of how we parent, if we can parent in that way, our children are bathed in it and surrounded by it,” Atkins says.
They Are Kind in Public
Kids see everything. So if parents want to raise a kind child, they need to be kind themselves. This means being consistent in shows of kindness (giving money to the homeless, being polite to workers, helping someone carry a stroller up a flight of stairs) without being performative about it. When kind acts are the routine, children see them as the norm. It becomes reactive. “It’s important for kids to be exposed to parents who are charitable,” says Atkins.
They Explain Their Actions
Parents who want to raise kids who have internalized a sense of kindness must also, at the right time, explain why they do kind things for others. “[Kids need to] understand why parents do what they do and what it means to them. Parents should say: ‘I feel good when I can contribute.’ ” If a parent is late coming home from work because they helped someone whose car was broken down, they explain why they were late. You tell your kids why it’s important that you helped, and that, as a family, this is a priority across the board.
They Are Outright in Their Gratitude for Their Kids and Their Lives
It’s important for parents to regularly express gratitude for what they have around their kids. This means expressing thanks to spouses, to kids, to family and friends, and for the little things that happen every day helps kids recognize that appreciating others vocally is a great way to lead a happy life. “Kids should know that gratitude is part of the appreciation of life, because when one is appreciative of one’s life, one is generally going to be kind to other people,” says Atkins.
They Don’t Scold Their Kids in Public (When They Can Avoid It)
When a child is acting up, parents should try to keep their cool — especially in public. Easier said than done. But, otherwise, per Atkins, the important message they’re sending their kid can get lost in their anger. “You might have to jump in and say, ‘Whoa, we’re stopping this, and you have to come here with me.’ But you don’t admonish them in front of a bunch of kids,” says Atkins. “We can say, ‘I’m really seeing red right now, and I don’t want to talk to you right now because I have to think about what I want to say.’ ”
Parents who are able to do this help themselves not only reflect and let it settle, but also, really demonstrate good qualities for their kids. Taking a beat to figure out what you want to say, in a way that won’t embarrass your kid in front of others, is crucial.
They Always Show Empathy for Their Child
Kids mess up. A lot. It’s essential, however, that parents show empathy, even when doling out discipline. So let’s say a child hits another child, and a parent catches word of it. When chatting with their kid, they shouldn’t immediately jump into punishment mode. Instead, they should ask them how they felt before and after they did it, and why they felt it was what they had to do. “Once a kid feels heard and like they don’t have to defend themselves as to why they did something mean, you can say ‘I know you wanted to hurt them because you were hurt. But what is another thing you could have done?’ ” says Atkins.
They Read With Them
Research shows that 4, 5, and 6 year olds who read books about characters whose lives may be far different than their own are more open and compassionate with others experiences. “There’s very compelling research that reading to children helps them feel connected and have empathy. They gain an understanding that other people have mental states, thoughts, beliefs, and preferences that are different from their own, and that underscores empathy,” says Atkins.
They Recognize That Teaching Compassion Takes a Long Time
As with any trait parents are trying to emphasize in their child, compassion takes a long time to cultivate. Parents need to understand that it will take a long time and, often, they will sound like a broken record. That happens. It’s a matter of being consistent in your actions, precise in your parenting, and aware that there are a lot of years before lessons start to stick.