Many parents believe that kindness comes naturally to young children. We assume that our child will be kind because we say “be kind,” but kindness is not an innate skill. Teaching kindness is a skill you need to be intentional about practicing.
Practicing Kindness with Young Babies
We know that children seem to show an innate sense of empathy at a very early age. Empathy requires not only the emotional component but an intellectual component as well. Studies show that babies as young as a few days old demonstrate the emotional component of empathy by mirroring facial expressions and crying when other babies cry. Studies also show that when babies are made to feel safe, secure, and loved by caregivers, they become more sensitive to others’ emotions and needs. This is part of why early bonding and attachment are so important.
Teaching Kindness to Toddlers
As children get closer to 24 months, the intellectual component of empathy comes into play. Toddlers begin to realize that other people have different feelings, emotions, wants and desires different from their own. They begin to understand that others have different experiences and likes and dislikes as well. An excellent example of this is when a one-year-old see a child get hurt, that one-year-old might offer the hurt child their stuffed animal or comfort item. They recognize that the child is hurt and needs comfort. When a two-year-old sees another child get hurt, they will go and get that child’s stuffed animal or comfort item, realizing that that child has different thoughts and likes.
Teaching by Example
If this does not come naturally, children can learn these empathetic skills by watching how we react in situations. Does your toddler see you using eye contact, nodding, and smiling while talking to her and other people? See you offering help and support to others? Does she see you using a caring approach with her and other people you interact with? She will adopt the same responses you use in social situations to demonstrate empathy. By modeling positive behaviors, you are teaching kindness by teaching her how to respond to other people.
The Power of Empathy
This sense of empathy lays the foundation for kindness, but empathy is innate and can be characterized as an emotion, while kindness is an action that needs to be taught.
Some studies have found that very young infants respond to kindness long before they can practice it themselves. In one study, three-month-old babies were more drawn to nice puppets versus mean puppets.
Cultivating a Culture of Kindness
You can start to lay the foundation for teaching kindness at a very young age. Point out emotions when you see them. If a child is crying, say, “that boy is sad.” While reading a book, say, “this puppy is happy because he found his friend,” or “this boy is sad because he lost his balloon.” Make it relate to your child by saying, “has that ever happened to you? How did you feel?” Children will be more aware of others’ emotions if they are in touch with their own.
It is also important to note that kindness requires courage. Because it is an action, the child needs to feel safe and secure before demonstrating kindness to others. Beyond modeling kindness and talking through situations, provide lots of opportunities for your child to practice kindness. Kindness requires a lot of practice. Try to take advantage of volunteer opportunities with your child. Deliver Meals on Wheels or bake cookies for an elderly neighbor. Have your child help you rake leaves or shovel snow for a friend. Bring your child to volunteer at church, a soup kitchen, or an organization that does hands-on service for others. Talk to your child about what you are doing and why. Before playdates, discuss how your child will find opportunities to be kind, the language they will use and why kindness is important.
During dinner, conversations start a ritual of each family member reporting an act of kindness they did that day (even if it is just smiling at someone or holding a door open). This will keep kindness at the forefront of your child’s mind, so they always have something to report during dinner. Make sure to discuss how showing kindness makes your child feel. Praise your child for being kind. Make sure your child knows that kindness is a respectful trait and that you are proud of them.