Humans are social beings and this we are wired from a young age to be aware of the feelings/emotions of others. Even babies have some basic understanding of kind and unkind people (as you can see in this video).
That being said, these young babies are also inherently self-centered. It’s just a survival technique–they want their needs met immediately. They do not yet have the brain maturity to really comprehend what another person is feeling.
They literally cannot put their mind into the mind of another person. This skill, called perspective-taking (or Theory of Mind), doesn’t typically develop until about 4 years of age.
Once this skill develops in the brain, it’s like a flip is switched and kids can see things from another person’s perspective. Using this skill consistently and in the settings we’d like them to is quite another matter.
Some kids take to this skill quickly and easily just due to their temperament or personality. Others, however, really need a lot of repetition for empathy to become an automatic reaction.
The good news is there are hundreds of possible interactions, conversations and events over the course of our time with our kids to practice these empathy skills.
That’s right, teaching kids kindness and empathy is done primarily through our everyday interactions.
In one of my favorite books on this topic, The Yes Brain, authors Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson explain it this way,
“The goal is to help wire our kids’ brains in such a way that it orients them, at a deep level, to other people and their feelings. We want to engage our children’s neural circuitry in a manner that encourages them to think about and feel concern for the people around them, and to do the right thing.”
Everyday things parents can do to nurture kindness in kids:
Talk the talk. The words we say to our kids really do become their internal dialog.
Discussing with our kids how other people might be feeling really makes a difference to wire their brains to consider others’ feelings.
One study showed that mothers who talked to their kids (as young as 5 years old) about how other people might be feeling, facilitated the development of Theory of Mind more so than parents who did not discuss feelings.
Walk the walk. It seems obvious, but modeling kindness in our own lives really is the best way for kids to learn it.
Kids are like little sponges when they are young and are keenly aware of those interactions we have with waitresses, drivers, teachers, etc.
The more we can model the kind behavior we want to see, the more our kids will follow suit.