Teaching kids to be kind

Sometimes, words just aren’t enough. Here’s how to instill a little more kindness in your kids

I regularly remind my four-year-old to “practice kindness,” whether he’s going to school, playing with his cousins or running around the park. It’s a phrase that I’ve been using for the past year or so—but the more that I think about it, the more I wonder what it really means to him.

“Kindness is an abstract concept for a child,” says Mary Gordon, founder and president of Roots of Empathy, a program that brings moms and babies to neighbourhood schools to help students develop emotional literacy. “Children learn what kindness is through authentic interactions from infancy,” Gordon explains.

Once a child can tune into another person’s emotional cues, kindness comes to them quite naturally, she says. Parents can teach kids how to respond to these cues from an early age by identifying emotions and suggesting ways to support other people. For example, if your son’s friend loses a special teddy, you might say: “Jenna is sad because she lost her toy. Do you want to give her a hug? That is a kind thing to do because it helps her to feel better.”

Every parent wants to raise kind kids and what it really comes down to is modeling the behaviour and language that you want your child to mimic (the next time you’re tempted to scream at the driver who cuts you off at the kiss-and-ride, try taking a few deep breaths instead). There’s no need to plan flashy, grand gestures to show just how kind you are: Everyday activities, such as lovingly helping your child put on his shoes, inviting friends over to share a meal, showing kindness toward animals and even displaying patience when answering annoying calls from telemarketers are all teachable moments. (You can also point out positive traits that you see in the books your kids are reading, or in the cartoons they watch.)

Once a child can tune into another person’s emotional cues, kindness comes to them quite naturally

Steffi Black, a life coach and kindness advocate for schools and businesses, says that it really doesn’t matter how simple the action is, but what’s more important is the consistency. “You really see an increase in prosocial behaviour when you consistently develop a caring and connected environment,” she says. Black creates a kindness curriculum for schools to help integrate play-based activities that promote characteristics like empathy and compassion. Families can do the same just by sitting down together to chat about the core values that are essential to them. Most important of all, though, is to provide positive acknowledgement when you see your child initiating acts of kindness.

While my son may not know the exact definition of kindness, he sure knows the way to his mama’s heart: A freshly-picked flower (or weed) whenever the opportunity presents; a page filled with hearts, x’s and o’s; and a never-ending supply of snuggles. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure those are all steps in the right direction—and are daily acts of kindness that I’m only too happy to return in kind.